While it is debatable whether any service can replace traditional face-to-face counselling, a rising number of people are choosing to engage therapists on the phone, WhatsApp, Skype, and text messaging.
While not widespread in Kenya, this practice is well established in the West. In the USA, Betterhelp, and Talkspace, two of the most popular online counselling service providers, have been in operation since 2013. These platforms have thousands of licensed professionals offering services via live chats, texts, calls, and video calls.
It is quite simple to use: One logs into the platforms and is directed to a chat room where preliminary questions determine which therapist is the best fit. The client can then directly communicate with the selected counsellor.
Online counselling is convenient and private. Privacy is crucial for those who are hesitant to be seen in mental healthcare facilities. The stigma, perceived or real, prevents some clients from seeking help.
Sadly, the ratio of certified counsellors in Kenya to the number of people requiring therapy is pretty high. In addition, few public hospitals offer this service, forcing patients to seek private care. With costs ranging from Sh2,000-10,000 per session, this is an option most Kenyans can ill afford.
Furthermore, an estimated 80 per cent of these facilities are located in urban areas, leaving the huge rural population exposed. Online counselling services are therefore more accessible and affordable to more people.
Finally, this method may encourage young people, who are more comfortable using the internet, to seek help.
Critics feel the absence of verbal and non-verbal cues, an essential component of traditional therapy, is highly likely to lead to misdiagnosis by the online therapist. Also important is the in-person relationship the patient forms with the counsellor, which may be difficult to do over the phone or computer.
However, studies indicate that for some conditions, patients' response to online therapy is at par with face-to-face counselling.
A quick search on Google reveals a few companies in Kenya whose websites list online therapy and counselling in their portfolio. For instance, Chris Hart, formerly based in Kenya, conducts coaching and counselling sessions exclusively online via video, audio, email or text messaging, as does Therapy Kenya, Intrapersonal Health, among others. Niskize offers telephone counselling via their prime 900 number.
Online therapy should not replace face-to-face counselling. However, the traditional option may not always be available or accessible to the majority of Kenyans. Online therapy can alleviate this problem. It may not be for everyone, but any help is better than no help at all.
Ms Magoma is a branding and corporate communications professional and [email protected]; Twitter handle is @KwambokaMagoma