When industries become digitized, more possibilities open up for customers. With healthcare and therapy, innovative online solutions have been evolving rapidly in the past decade. In 2023, we find ourselves in the position of being able to receive therapy at any time, from anywhere, and for any budget.
This article will explore the free side of online therapy – what options there are, the standard of service you should expect, and how it compares to paid therapy options.
Below you can find my picks for the best free therapy platforms for each treatment type. I will try and explain not only why I chose them, but also how they differ from similar, popular paid services.
Hims and Hers are two platforms run by the same company, one being for men and the other for women. The unique value proposition of both platforms is the provision of free online group therapy sessions. And, when it comes to gender-specific issues like hair loss, sexual health, and skin care, this may be a powerful sharing experience for some people.
The anonymous support groups (cameras for the video call can be turned off) can facilitate 15 people. One-on-one therapy is not offered for free, but people can submit questions before the session and pick a time and topic that suits them.
Circles is a popular paid service which also specializes in group therapy. Unlike the platforms above, it offers much more diverse groups – covering more issues and meeting on a more regular basis instead of just once a week. Also, their software and in particular mobile app, are far superior. To learn more, read our Circles review.
7 Cups is perhaps the most well-known free online therapy platform. The unique value angle here is that there are listeners available at all times, 24/7. However, the free version of this platform only offers trained volunteers that are not licensed therapists. Groups are available too, and so is a paid version of the app where licensed therapists can be accessed.
Free Online Therapy is a platform very similar to 7 Cups. There are 3 ways to get started: Speak to a volunteer for free, match with a licensed therapist (not free), and speak to a relationship counselor (not free).
The free volunteer is a 24/7 counseling chat. The helper isn’t a licensed therapist, and is in fact more of a space where it’s fairly easy to be a “listener” or a “venter” – then you are paired. It is not clear how or if volunteer listeners are trained.
As you can see if you visited their site or 7cups’, the platforms are extremely outdated and hard to use. Since Talkspace offers the same service of 24/7 chat therapy for just $65 a month (provided by a licensed therapist and not a random volunteer) – I still think this is a much better option. Also, Talkspace does accept insurance, so price can be dropped even further. Read my Talkspace review for more information.
Bliss by CIMHS is not a platform where you speak to a therapist. Instead, this is a free online self-guided course. The free course has 8 sessions, which can be ideal for people who are not yet feeling ready to speak to a therapist. The program offers CBT worksheets and is based on clinical psychology research. There’s a weekly depression scale to measure mood along with online quizzes to review core concepts.
The most comparable paid version to this would be Online-Therapy.com which costs 39.99$ a week. For that price, you get access to a wider range of worksheets, videos, excerises and other DIY materials than what you’ll get over at Bliss. Additionaly, it also includes the ability to text a therapist every day (video sessions cost more). Online-Therapy.com doesn’t work with insurance, but offers a free trial. Read our Online-Therapy.com review to learn more.
Across many studies, online therapy as a whole has been proven to be very effective. Matching the efficacy of face-to-face therapy, it’s no longer a debate due to the high standards held by licensed therapists.
However, free online therapy comes in many forms, making it more difficult to study. Most providers are, at best, a way to speak to trained counselors and not licensed therapists. Online counseling can be just as effective as face-to-face counseling, though sessions with a licensed therapist are the gold standard of therapy.
There is a unique advantage to using platforms like 7 Cups compared to formal therapy sessions. This is because the volunteers are on 24/7 stand-by, making users feel more supported in a crisis or emergency. Whilst long-lasting behavioral tools offered by CBT aren’t necessarily on offer, immediate help and support are. Connecting to a listener via a phone app offers unparalleled accessibility.
Studies on the effectiveness of the 12-step program can highlight the value that free group therapy has to offer, and this translates well online too. There are even some advantages here when it comes to anonymity, such as speaking with the camera off.
The biggest benefit to free therapy is of course the cost. Beyond saving money, this means that counseling and group therapy are opened up to everyone. Even traditional ‘free’ group sessions, such as 12-step, bear the cost of commuting to the location.
This can open up therapy to everyone, and for longer. A 2018 study found that 39% of people cited cost as being the reason they did not receive mental health treatment. This was the number one cause.
The third (24%) and fourth (20%) reason for not receiving treatment, as per the aforementioned 2018 study, was that they did not know where to go for services and didn’t have the time. Free online therapy seeks to improve both of these situations. Firstly, through online adverts and Google results, it’s very easy to see the options available – not to mention the ease of trying out a free service compared to a paid one.
Secondly, free online providers are very quick to sign up with and get started. It isn’t required to drive to a local office or town hall as users have access with just a few clicks.
In the 2018 study, 9% of people didn’t receive mental health treatment because of concerns around confidentiality. While tech platforms may have their own unique security risks, it’s generally agreed upon that users are better able to remain anonymous when using free online platforms. Not only are you in your own home remotely connected, but free platforms do not require a credit card for payment.
Free online therapy services often offer a one-size-fits-all approach, such as the Bliss self-guided course, which may not be suitable for everyone. Individualized treatment plans may require paid services that are tailored to a person’s specific needs. Furthermore, you will likely speak to different volunteers, meaning a connection to a single therapist cannot be built upon, thus tailored sessions cannot be provided in the future.
Free online therapy services are generally run by unlicensed providers, meaning some may have individuals who are not effective in providing mental health services. This can pose a risk to individuals seeking help, as unqualified providers may not have the necessary skills or training to address complex mental health issues. When dealing with such important issues, there’s a risk of making things worse.
Free services may not have the same level of accountability as traditional therapy providers. Less licensing may mean fewer regulations. This can lead to issues such as unreliable or inconsistent treatment, lack of follow-up, and potential breaches of confidentiality.
Furthermore, it is generally expected that for-profit companies place greater emphasis on reputation and cyber security. They often have the means for better systems, along with a reputation to protect.
While some platforms may have great flexibility, many will restrict the availability or the type of service you can use. As with most freemium models, paying means opening up more features and better access to higher-quality services. When it comes to group sessions, for example, resources may be stretched meaning fewer sessions are taking place. This may make it difficult for individuals to access help when they need it.
As discussed above, there are many pros and cons to consider when it comes to free online therapy. To be able to talk to someone online for free is a powerful thing. Many people suffering from mental health issues do not have someone they trust to turn to, making a free online therapy chat 24/7 invaluable.
The bedrock of modern-day online therapy is CBT, a very effective psychotherapy technique. Because CBT must be administered by a licensed therapist, it’s a significant drawback that most 100% free online counseling platforms do not provide it. Whilst free therapy online may provide some effective coping mechanisms, CBT is considered the gold standard for treating anxiety, depression, addiction, and many other issues.
Finally, a clear limitation of free therapy online is that it cannot provide psychiatry. This means that mental disorder diagnosis is not possible, nor is medication management. So, for more severe mental health issues, free online therapy for anxiety or PTSD is not recommended.
Free therapy online is available in abundance. Using a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone, it’s possible to receive help through instant messenger or video calls from home. Online therapy has proven to be highly effective, and whilst free therapy may not always be the equivalent treatment, it offers effective coping mechanisms along with emotional and group support. However, depending on budget and needs, it may be worth upgrading to a paid plan if it means accessing a licensed therapist or psychiatrist.
Ultimately, as with all things in life, you get what you paid for. While the free services featured on this page are all decent, I still strongly believe the paid platforms are far superior. Before you make up your mind, I suggest reading our guide for affordable online therapy, and our list of the best therapy sites that take insurance.