Digital therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy, according to a new study from the University of Alberta. This is promising news in the midst of a pandemic that requires social distancing and has prompted a dramatic shift to and spike in demand from Canadians for online therapy.

The study, led by Chelsea Jones, an occupational therapist for the Canadian Armed Forces and a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta faculty of rehabilitation medicine, examined previous research on digital and remote mental health care for veterans, military personnel and other public safety personnel (paramedics, police and fire) dealing with trauma.

In an article published by the university’s magazine, Phillip Sevigny, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of educational psychology in the Faculty of Education, explained: “On average, as well as for this specific population, we found that the outcomes for digitally and remotely delivered psychotherapy are just as good as the effects of face-to-face therapy.”

While there is still work to be done in this area and the authors acknowledge that virtual therapy doesn’t work for everyone, the findings are important and timely given the current COVID-19 pandemic: “Importantly, published work confirms that digital health can improve access to treatment in this population because of a combination of reasons including convenience, cost savings, reduced stigma, and comfort and safety of the home environment.”

According to a recent piece in the Toronto Star, the shift to virtual mental health care is here to stay, as therapists embrace Zoom and other dedicated platforms to meet the spiking demand for mental health supports.

Talkspace, which offers text messages and therapy sessions, reported a 65% increase in clients since the pandemic began, while the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is now training all of its residents in virtual therapy.

In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earmarked $240.5 million “to develop, expand, and launch virtual care and mental health tools to support Canadians” with pandemic-related mental health issues.

Still, mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health, according to a joint statement by the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health.

As we mark World Mental Health Day, the emphasis is on ensuring people around the world have access to quality mental health services.

Here in Canada, nearly 60% of Canadians say their mental health has been negatively impacted as they continue to navigate COVID-19 and its related challenges, according to a recent survey from Sun Life Financial.

This illustrates a significant and growing need for more mental health supports: Accessible digital tools and online therapy options have an essential role to play in ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of Canadians.