Virtual blues

The online revolution is the most recent step in the development of counselling, an initiative that

Why try to explain how you are feeling when an emoticon can do it for you? The internet has now become the first port of call for pretty much anything, and these days ever more people are opting for virtual therapy sessions via email or web chat programmes such as MSN and Skype.

The online revolution is the most recent step in the development of counselling, an initiative that started with post-war couples looking to save a marriage in crisis. But the internet version has taken off in a way that telephone counselling never did. So who uses it, and why?

"There is an increasing group of young professionals who can't take the pace," says Kate Anthony, an online counselling pioneer who has done extensive research in the area. "The first place they turn for everything is the internet. And once they have made the decision to seek help, online counselling is the only way they can fit it into their busy schedule."

To respond to the growing number of their members offering online interactions, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has already published the second edition of guidelines for online counselling (2005), the most comprehensive set in the world. Last year, Anthony trained more than 50 counsellors in the art of virtual therapy.

Counsellors suspect that online services are also drawing in people who would not seek face-to-face counselling. "It's a new market," says Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the BACP. "Online work reduces the stigma of counselling for people who simply would not turn up to a session in person."

Hodson has treated not just young people, but "silver surfers" as well as clients from abroad including India - contrary to the stiff upper lip reputation of the British, our counselling services have a reputation for excellence. Anthony's experience further suggests that online counselling is particularly popular with two demographic groups in particular: university students and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/sexual) community.

Online counselling is changing the nature of therapy itself as well as its clients. Although web chats work in the same real-time conversational manner as traditional counselling sessions, email counselling does not. Usually started by the client's emailing an outline of their problem, at around 500 words, the interactions continue by essay, entailing relatively delayed responses and often lengthier input from the counsellor rather than the intermittent questions and prompts of a personal session.

"It's not for everyone," says Hodson, who currently does no work online. "The inarticulate person simply gets frustrated at not being able to express themselves. Can you imagine John Prescott in online counselling?"

But there are advantages. Some people find writing more conducive to opening up. And literally reading between the lines of an email can tell the therapist a lot; what hasn't been written can be as important as what has.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug