Net gains: What are the benefits of online therapy for problem gamblers and clinicians?
“A 35-year old man comes home very late from a night out at the casino having lost all his savings at the roulette wheel. Unable to sleep, he logs onto the Internet and locates a self-help site for problem gambling and fills out a 20-item gambling checklist. Within a few hours he receives an E-mail which suggests he may have an undiagnosed gambling disorder. He is invited to revisit the site to learn more about his possible gambling disorder, seek further advice from an online gambling counsellor and join an online gambling self-help group” (from Griffiths and Cooper, 2003)
On initial examination, this fictitious scenario appears of little concern until a number of questions raise serious concerns. For instance, who scored the gambling test? Who will monitor the gambling self-help group? Who will give online counselling advice for the gambling problem? Does the counsellor have legitimate qualifications and experience regarding gambling problems? Who sponsors the gambling website? What influence do the sponsors have over content of the site? Do the sponsors have access to visitor data collected by the website? These are all questions that may not be raised by a problem gambler in crisis seeking help but they are important questions that require answers. Of course, these are also questions that should apply to any comparable face-to-face interventions.
The Internet could be viewed as just a further extension of technology being used to transmit and receive communications between the helper and the helped. If gambling practitioners shun the new technologies, others who might have questionable ethics will likely come in to fill the clinical vacuum. Online therapy is growing. Furthermore, its growth appears to outstrip any efforts to organize, limit and regulate it. It has been claimed that online therapy is a viable alternative source of help when traditional psychotherapy is not accessible. Proponents claim it is effective, private and conducted by skilled, qualified, ethical professionals. It is further claimed that for some people, it is the only way they either can or will get help (from professional therapists and/or self-help groups).
Psychological services provided on the Internet range from basic information sites about specific disorders, to self-help sites that assess a person’s problem, to comprehensive psychotherapy services offering assessment, diagnosis and intervention. Most experts agree that online therapy currently available is not traditional psychotherapy. For many, it appears to be an alternative for those who are either unable or reluctant to seek face-to-face treatment. There have been many reasons put forward as to why online assistance is advantageous. Here are the main ones:
- Online therapy is convenient: Online therapy is convenient to deliver, and can provide a way to seek instant advice or get quick and discreet information. In the case of counselling by E-mail, one needs to keep in mind that therapy per se can occur either via professionally delivered formats or via peer-delivered self-help groups. In addition, the counselling might not necessarily be restricted to E-mail; some might augment face-to-face counselling with E-mail ‘booster’ sessions. In this way, correspondence happens at the convenience of both the client and the counsellor. Online therapy avoids the need for scheduling and the setting of appointments, although for those who want them, appointments can be scheduled over a potential 24-hour period. For problem gamblers who might have a sense of increased risk or vulnerability, they can take immediate action via online interventions, as these are available on demand and at any time. Crisis workers often report that personal crises occur beyond normal office hours, making it difficult for people to obtain help from mental health clinicians and the like. If a problem gambler has lost track of time at the casino only to depart depressed, broke, and suicidal at 4am in the morning, they can perhaps reach someone at that hour who will be understanding, empathic and knowledgeable. They likely have a better chance of finding someone at an online peer-support site like GamTalk (gamtalk.org) than they would at their local mental health centre.
- Online therapy is cost-effective for clients: Compared with traditional face-to-face therapies, online therapy is cheaper. This is a big selling point often used by those selling their services online (for instance, some sites advertise their online services as ‘less than the customary cost of a private therapy session’ or ‘help and therapy at a reasonable fee’). This is obviously an advantage to those who may have low financial resources. It may also allow practitioners to provide services to more clients because less time is spent travelling to see them. Since there are financial consequences for a gambler, cheaper forms of therapy such as online therapy may be a preferred option out of necessity rather than choice. The cost factor is particularly important in countries where people are often forced to pay for health care (for example, in the United States). With the Internet, quality information and support (even if treatment is not yet freely available online) is available without cost. Arguably, one needs Internet access, but this too is becoming more freely available, and conceivably, even those who are homeless would be able to utilize such services through places like public libraries (although, literacy would continue to be an important requirement).
- Online therapy overcomes barriers that otherwise may prevent people from seeking face-to-face help: There are many different groups of people who might benefit from online therapy. For example, those who are (i) physically disabled, (ii) agoraphobic, (iii) geographically isolated and/or do not have access to a nearby therapist (military personnel, prison inmates, housebound individuals etc.), (iv) linguistically isolated, and (v) embarrassed, anxious and/or too nervous to talk about their problems face-to-face with someone, and/or those who have never been to a therapist before might benefit from online therapy. Some like those with agoraphobia and/or the geographically isolated, might be more susceptible to activities like online gambling because they either tend not to leave home much or they do not have access to more traditional gambling facilities (like casinos, bingo halls, racetracks and so forth). It is clear that those that are most in need of help (whether it is for mental health problems, substance abuse or problem gambling often do not receive it).
- Online therapy helps to overcome social stigma: The social stigma of seeing a therapist can be the source of profound anxiety for some people. However, online psychotherapists offer clients a degree of anonymity that reduces the potential stigma. Gambling may be particularly stigmatic for some because they may find it is a self-initiated problem. Others have found that the issue of stigma has caused some problem gamblers to avoid seeking treatment. Furthermore, in an exploratory study, my research colleague Dr. Gerry Cooper found that there was a correlation between higher levels of concerns about stigma and the absence of treatment utilization, and that lurking (i.e., visiting but not registering presence to other users) at a problem gambling support group website made it easier for many to seek help including face-to-face help. It should also be noted that there is strong emerging evidence for the power and effectiveness of narrative therapies. For example, there is some evidence to suggest that a person’s use of positive emotion words in their written articulations of difficult or problematic experiences lead to improved health changes.
- Online therapy allows therapists to reach an exponential amount of people: Given the truly international cross-border nature of the Internet, therapists have a potential global clientele. Furthermore, gambling itself has been described as the ‘international language’ and has spread almost everywhere within international arenas.
From the brief outline presented here, it would appear that in some situations, online therapy can be helpful – at least to some specific sub-groups of society, some of which may include problem gamblers. Furthermore, online therapists will argue that there are responsible, competent, ethical mental health professionals forming effective helping relationships via the Internet, and that these relationships help and heal. However, online therapy is not appropriate for everyone. As with any new frontier, there are some issues to consider before trying it. In my next blog I will look at some of the downsides of online therapy.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Posted on September 15, 2014, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Cyberpsychology, Gambling, Gambling addiction, I.T., Internet addiction, Internet gambling, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gambling, Psychology, Technology and tagged E-counselling, Gambling addiction, Gambling therapy, Online counselling, Online psychotherapy, Online therapy, Problem gambling, Problem gambling treatment, Psychotherapy, Telemedicine. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.