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Is online counselling actually any good?

There’s an app for everything these days, even your mental health. You’re probably already tracking your fitness, sleep, and periods, so why not also track your moods? And, when it comes to more formal mental health support, online counselling services are just a click away – whether you’re not sure where else to turn right now, or need something to bridge the gap while you’re on an NHS waiting list for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

The problem is there are just so many options to choose from. So do any of them actually work? And, if so, how do you know which apps and websites are any good? It’s all totally personal of course, so what works for your best mate might be totally useless for you, but here are some general rules to follow.

Know what you want

First up, not all mental health apps and counselling websites offer exactly the same services, so be clear about what kind of thing you want. Some, like MoodNotes or Remente, allow you to track your mood, habits, and unhelpful thinking patterns – like a Fitbit for your brain.

You’ll also find lots of digital self-help programmes available to guide you through whatever issues you’re struggling with. SilverCloud offers online support with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and is available on the NHS in some areas.

Similarly, Fear Fighter and Beating The Blues are based on cognitive behavioural therapy and can help with common issues like depression, anxiety, and phobias.

Finally, there are the digital counselling services, where you can connect online with another human being for advice, support and guidance with whatever you’re going through. This is most similar to traditional talking therapies, and many of these services come at a cost, but there are good quality free options out there.

It’s also worth noting that there are two very different types: peer support networks, like TalkLife, which allow you to speak to other users who may be going through similar issues; and services that connect you with trained, professional counsellors or therapists, like Childline’s 1-2-1 counsellor chat which allows you to talk to a qualified counsellor over an online messaging service.

One particular type isn’t necessarily better than any other – in fact, they can complement each other quite nicely; it just depends what you’re looking for.

Check out their credentials

One of the biggest challenges when picking out a mental health or counselling app is knowing which ones are legit. If you’ve found an app that seems popular, or claims to offer what you need, take a look at their credentials first to make sure they’re the real deal.

Who is it made by – a team of psychology experts, or a tech start-up just jumping on the mental health bandwagon? Does it have backing and input from qualified mental health professionals? Is it recommended by the NHS, Mind, or one of the other big mental health or young people’s charities? If not, it’s probably worth looking elsewhere.

Stay safe

I know, I know; safeguarding is one of those boring adult words that make us roll our eyes and wonder what parents and teachers are making such a fuss about – but actually, when it comes to online safety, it’s really important.

Services provided by charities like ChildLine should already be really hot on this, but make sure whatever app or website you’re looking at has a safeguarding policy, to protect your privacy and help weed out any inappropriate behaviour from other users.

Read the reviews

Although finding out what’s right for you is going to be very personal, chatting to other people about their experiences, and reading the reviews, can help give you a general sense of what’s good or not so good.

For 19-year-old Rebecca, her GP recommended self-help sites Big White Wall and SilverCloud but she struggled to motivate herself to stick with the programme when she was feeling really down. “I’m sure some people do find it really helpful, but in the end I decided that face-to-face counselling was more suited to me,” says.

Seek expert help

Whatever you go for, don’t forget you can always turn to the adults in your real life – your GP, teachers, school nurse or counsellor, or your parents – for guidance, support and advice.

Your GP in particular may well be able to recommend an online counselling service that will suit you, or they may refer you for face-to-face therapy while you shop around for apps that can support you outside of those sessions.

Either way, there are enough free services out there that you shouldn’t need to spend your pocket money on mental health support unless you’ve really done your research and found a paid-for service that’s perfect for your needs.

You can also get more information, on both online and offline therapy options, from UK talking therapies guide Where To Talk.

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