Health

Can This Accessible Online Program Replace In-Person Therapy?

MindBeacon, which is free to all Ontarians and covered by many other benefit plans, has shown promising results in clinical trials. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution—here’s what you need to know.

A woman sitting at a table working on her laptop.

(Photo: iStock)

Throughout the pandemic, public health measures have targeted our physical health, aiming to reduce the spread of the virus through social distancing guidelines, mask mandates and lockdowns. But after two years of living with COVID-19, experts say it’s also brought an invisible “pandemic within a pandemic”: a tsunami of mental health effects including loneliness, grief and anxiety.

To know you need help is a good place to start, but what if you can’t afford it—either because you don’t have workplace benefits, or the ones you do have provide measly coverage for in-person therapy? MindBeacon, a virtual therapy platform, seeks to bridge that gap. It’s similar to free national mental health programs like Wellness Together Canada, that offers online resources to learn more about mental health as well as a helpline for people to speak directly with counsellors. MindBeacon, however, is entirely virtual—it offers a 12-week guided cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program that’s free for all Ontario residents and covered by many employee benefit plans across Canada. Here’s what you need to know about MindBeacon.

How does CBT work?

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that looks at how thoughts shape behaviours and feelings. It helps people identify negative or distressing thought patterns and then teaches skills to challenge those thoughts so that they become less consuming and overwhelming. Patients working through a CBT program will often get exercises to complete in between therapy sessions that teach problem solving skills and coping mechanisms. It can help with a number of mental illnesses including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, post-traumatic disorder, depression and other mood disorders.

What does the MindBeacon program entail?

The program helps people struggling with a range of mental health issues and the therapy itself is offered via readings, exercises and worksheets available through the website and designed by a registered therapist who monitors your progress through instant messaging. After working through a module and its related worksheets or activities, the therapist will check-in with you, review your progress and offer related feedback or advice.

Since the program’s launch in 2016, it’s been used by more than 55,000 Canadians and was found effective by clinical trials conducted by MindBeacon. In one trial, people with PTSD reduced their symptoms by about 34 percent after two weeks of the program; another trial found that more than half of people with clinical depression experienced “clinically significant improvement” following treatment. These findings echo larger research that has found virtual CBT is as effective in treating anxiety and depressive disorders as in-person therapy.

The program is self-paced, so the amount of time you spend going through readings and exercises depends entirely on your schedule—most people complete the program between six to eight weeks. You’ll also hear from your therapist on a weekly basis, who’ll check in to see how you’re progressing. If you have questions between these check-ins though, your therapist will reply to your messages within two to three business days.

How do I know if MindBeacon can help me?

The program treats certain mental illnesses like depression and anxiety but not others—like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder—that either aren’t treated effectively through virtual programs or require medical attention in addition to therapy. And because the program is self-guided, it works best for people who are determined and self-motivated, says Michelle Sorensen, a clinical psychologist based in Ottawa and founder of the Resiliency Clinic.

Those struggling with severe depression or anxiety might find it harder to push themselves through a program like this, she adds. And if you’re in crisis, you will need to seek outside support. The MindBeacon therapist overseeing your treatment will routinely ask about suicidality and self-harm during check-ins, and if they believe you might be in crisis, you’re given a list of local resources.

You’ll also need access to a laptop, phone or tablet and reliable Internet connection.

What do mental health experts think about virtual therapy programs like MindBeacon?

While the program has its limitations, it makes mental health care more accessible to those that need it at a time when it’s needed the most. “Something is better than nothing,” says Henny Westra, a psychology professor at York University who’s been researching CBT and psychotherapy models for the past 30 years. And although she says it won’t replace face-to-face therapy, it can be used as a first step in a patient’s treatment—making the program an important resource for family doctors who often see mental health concerns among patients but have few free resources to offer to them. “This is a great way of getting people in the door and their feet wet with therapy,” says Westra. Sorensen adds that especially during the pandemic, she’s found clients were less apprehensive about trying virtual therapies versus IRL sessions.

Can therapy work without regular interaction with an actual therapist?

The therapeutic relationship is essential to healing, says Westra, irrespective of what kind of therapy—CBT, talk therapy, behavioural therapy—you’re getting. Feeling understood, accepted and validated are key tenants of this relationship and there are different ways of building it, she says—including via text. (Just think of the last time you read something and it resonated with you.)

What if MindBeacon doesn’t work for me?

Even if someone is a clinical fit for the guided CBT program, they might not resonate with the platform or the way the therapy is provided. CBT teaches people how to challenge distressing thoughts and behaviours and doing that effectively involves the therapist drawing examples from your own life and then contextualizing these strategies. But if the therapy comes across as more of a psychology lesson without context or compassion, says Sorensen, that can reduce its effectiveness.

The MindBeacon modules read like conversation rather than textbook chapters, offering multiple real-life scenarios people are likely to identify with. The modules also explain the biological basis behind something like the stress response, for example, to demystify why you might be feeling the way you are. Some of the worksheets that follow modules also allow you to provide greater detail about the certain issues you’re facing, so that your therapist is able to provide a more tailored response. The module on stress, for example, has exercises that ask you to write about your top three stressors and rate how stressful certain aspects of your life—from finances to your job—are.

It’s entirely possible that you might complete your 12 weeks to find that you still need to speak to a therapist to work through specific problems or to simply be vulnerable or to be held accountable. “It’ll differ for everyone, but some might complete the MindBeacon program and find that they need to speak to a therapist to work through specific problems they’re facing,” says Westra. “Feeling like you need more help is a sign that you probably should see a therapist.”

Although MindBeacon therapists aren’t required to make suggestions to clients about getting help after they have completed the program, they can answer questions or point to resources if you’re curious about continuing therapy. But external therapy programs beyond MindBeacon, again, are paid out of pocket. “I worry about people who don’t have health insurance or health benefits from an employer,” says Sorensen.

She’s seen herself the demand for affordable mental health care—prior to and during the pandemic, people would call her clinic wanting to get help but not being able to afford it. Some clinics do have sliding scale fee structures, which offer cheaper hourly rates for therapy based on your income. She says that it’s also worth looking at university counselling centres, that may employ postgraduate students training to become psychotherapists who offer therapy at a discounted rate. Clinics like her own also take in and supervise interns who provide therapy at reduced costs.

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