Free Online Therapy: Understanding Therapy vs. Free Counseling

Woman on couch with hands open, talking to a therapist

Online therapy is fast becoming the norm for those seeking therapy on their own terms. A recent study found online therapy to be as effective as face-to-face (FTF) therapy in treating major mental health challenges like anxiety disorders and depressive symptoms. The same study regards online therapy as a “treatment for the future.”

When evaluating online therapy options, there are many avenues to take depending on your mental health challenges. The first avenue should always be to seek professional help — self-diagnosis can be a dangerous game. Therapy remains the next best step, and in exploring online therapy options, you may encounter offers claiming “free” online therapy.

But do free therapy options, or “free” trial periods truly lead to the highest level of professional help you may need? We’ll help you understand online therapy’s benefits, and how to navigate toward a solution that will provide you with the best professional mental health care available.

Online therapy basics

Although online therapy’s origins date back to the 1980’s, advancements in technology and telehealth in recent years have made online therapy accessible to millions more around the world.

This comes at a critical time, where the median number of mental health workers is 9 per 100,000 population globally, exposing a glaring gap mental health coverage for all. In the U.S. alone, over 55 percent of American adults don’t receive treatment for mental illness.

Talkspace has become the leading name in online therapy, connecting people with professional therapists with years of educational training and thousands of hours of practice using evidence-based methodology.

Advantages to Online Therapy

Compared to traditional “brick and mortar” therapy, online therapy broadens your network of therapists, making sure you’re able to find a professional that best suits your personality and long-term mental health goals.

It puts a licensed therapist in your pocket, so to speak, which eliminates anxiety and uncertainty around booking appointments. Because it’s confidential, there’s no risk of being “found out” for seeking the help you need in situations where discretion is key.

Online therapy is cost-effective, often costing less per-week than copay deductibles. There’s no need for insurance plans, or having to worry whether your favorite therapist is in-network.

With online therapy, wherever you go, your therapist is right there with you. Whether you prefer talking via live video chat, through text chat, or a voice or video message, there’s a solution to meet your preferred method of communication. You can even talk to your therapist in the comfort of your bed, while in your pajamas!

Security and Privacy in Online Therapy

With any new technology comes concerns about client confidentiality and personal data.

In order to keep your data safe, companies like Talkspace utilize the same encryption technologies as global banking giants. This means all communications between the client and therapist are scrambled, making them unreadable even if they fall into the wrong hands. Even the possibility of this happening is extremely unlikely, as there are security teams and technologies constantly monitoring our systems for the slightest hint of anomalous activity.

Companies offering true online therapy must operate under the same state and federal guidelines, restrictions, and legal definitions as traditional therapists with physical offices. In order to become and remain Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant, Talkspace must pass each of its strict security audits.

With Talkspace, it’s comforting to know that any discussions with your therapist are entirely confidential and completely encrypted, preventing access by anyone but yourself and your therapist.

The difference between online therapy and free online counseling

There are many ways to seek guidance for questions and solutions related to mental health: online therapy, traditional therapy, counseling both on and offline, and one-off conversations with friends or family, to name a few.

The terms “counseling” and “therapy” are both used to describe a professional relationship in which a client entrusts a provider with the details of their life in order to manage symptoms or otherwise meet desired goals. No matter the term, a main distinction is professional licensing or certification versus those who offer advice in an unlicensed capacity.

It’s important to distinguish between the benefits of meeting with a licensed clinical professional, as opposed to receiving counsel from an unregistered person or practice.

Support versus treatment

When seeking behavioral health assistance, the first place most people turn to is the internet.

A great place to start is with supportive articles that help introduce you to the conversation around mental health. Another option is to read message boards and be a part of community-generated discussion on sites such as Reddit. These solutions offer support and encouragement from others who may be on the same path as you.

There is no wrong way to approach the discovery phase of your personal mental health needs. However, it’s best to avoid self-diagnosis and allow a professional to help assess your needs, and a develop a plan to overcome the trials you may face throughout your journey.

Benefits of a mental health professional

A professional, licensed therapist provides assistance by suggesting evidence-based methods and practices to help work through your unique mental health challenges. Many therapists are lifelong learners, continuing their education to the highest levels, gaining doctorates and multiple psychological certifications along the way.

A therapist’s goal isn’t to cure you. Behavioral health is about addressing the fluid nature of life’s challenges, and to provide the resources and strategies that will carry you through each time issues may arise. Therapists show us how to reframe our view of the world, and expose how negative or rigid thought patterns can be detrimental to our mental health.

Essentially, a therapist provides a comfortable, non-judgemental environment in which you can learn the skills necessary to address your problems on your own. Years after therapy sessions, clients are able to apply techniques learned from their therapist. Therapists give clients strength in the moment, and the confidence to overcome challenges constructively in the future.

How to tell if your therapist is licensed

Absolute trust between a therapist and a client is part of what makes therapy successful. When it comes to your behavioral health goals, you should only trust a licensed therapist who has the necessary certifications and clinical experience to guide you through your challenges.

As an example, all Talkspace therapists must be licensed to practice therapy or counseling in the U.S., and in the state they’re practicing. We require that our therapists have the required accreditation, and have completed all licensing hours, supervision, and state exams. Our minimum requirements mean the equivalent of a master’s degree and an additional 3,000 hours of supervised work. The screening process to become a Talkspace therapist includes 6-weeks of onboarding.

Only a very small number of applicants become Talkspace therapists. This assures we’re able to connect you with experienced therapists to meet your specific mental health needs.

Licensed therapist titles

To confirm your therapist is licensed, look for suffixes and titles that indicate accreditation. The following list is not exhaustive, but provides you with the most common titles associated with licensed professionals:

  • LPC – Licensed Professional Counselor
  • LCPC – Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • LPCC – Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
  • LMHC – Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • LMFT – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • LAC – Licensed Associate Counselor
  • CAC – Certified Addictions Counselor
  • LP – Licensed Psychologist
  • LC – Licensed Counselor

Examples of unlicensed counseling or free online therapy:

  • Life coach
  • Health and wellness coach
  • Listening services
  • Life consulting
  • EFT – Emotional Freedom Techniques
  • Counselor (unlicensed)

While this list can be helpful at a glance, it’s important to know there are practices which attempt to operate outside legal lines or, based on state or local laws, in an unofficial capacity. In this case, local governments help make sure you’re finding fully-licensed professional psychologists and therapy solutions.

State Protections

Most state governments heavily regulate therapeutic practice and are protective of titles and claims of practice surrounding therapy and related psychological assistance. These official designations are often guided by occupational licensing agencies, such as a state Board of Psychology, which sits under its Department of Health or Social Services.

For example, the state of New York’s Office of the Professions establishes a formal definition of titles, practices, and terms surrounding psychology and mental health offerings. Their 2002 and 2003 amendments designate terms, titles, and definitions surrounding psychologists and therapy as official and exclusive to licensed professionals.

A key takeaway is to seek the guidance of your home state if you feel you’ve been wrongly offered professional help, or have any questions or comments regarding a pending or future therapy experience.

Free online therapy and licensing

Because there is so much information — along with misinformation — on the internet, attempts to deceive those seeking mental health assistance are far too common.

Based on what you’ve learned so far, receiving an offer for “free online therapy” should raise red flags: Is this a sales tactic? What’s the catch? Can I truly trust who’s delivering this service? Are the individuals licensed?

Because Talkspace is an industry leader in online therapy, our vetting process is especially rigorous as mentioned above. We only pair you with with 100% licensed therapists, and you’re welcomed to switch therapists with just the click of a button at any point during your therapy..

Is “free online therapy” harmful to my mental health goals?

Nothing in life is truly free. In fact “free” can often indicate a service that has reduced the value of what it offers simply to get someone using a service or to provide their information.

As for “free online therapy” opportunities that exist online, a healthy bit of skepticism should be reserved for what they offer. These “solutions” often forgo scientific backing and clinical licensing in lieu of lending a quick, untrained ear to allow you to vent. This is support, not licensed therapy.

When seeking mental health assistance, it’s important to consider how a therapist fits with your personality, their level of professionalism, and the ability to apply their expertise to your unique mental health needs. Without this strong relationship, free online “therapists” can set you back in your mental health journey. Trusted online therapy providers help you avoid just these kinds of regrettable missteps.

Talkspace Makes Online Therapy Affordable, Not “Free”

Talkspace doesn’t claim to offer “free online therapy” or “free trials” as part of our service. These claims devalue the important decision mental health seekers must make to receive the help they need. Additionally, these claims do a disservice to licensed therapists, who spend years in schooling and clinical settings in order to provide valuable mental health services to the public. Helping others is their livelihood, and many consider it a noble sacrifice as well as a calling.

Our goal is to make the best mental health services accessible and affordable, by connecting you with 100% licensed professionals who are dedicated to an outstanding level of practice in a digital setting.

Published by

Josh Wolff

Staff Writer at Talkspace