Stephen Goss and Kate Anthony
The new and developing field of online therapeutic work presents exciting new possibilities and challenges to practitioners. Yet, given the ever-changing nature of communication technology, it seems likely that definitive descriptions of the method will elude us. Hardware and software continue to become ever more sophisticated and new information technology solutions to communication barriers continually emerge. Along with exciting challenges and possibilities comes the potential for new and increased risk for clients, not to mention pitfalls for practitioners. It is a seriously under-researched field even at the time of writing in October 2003, although small-scale studies continue to emerge. Yet it seems that, despite the appropriate caution shown by the counselling and psychotherapy profession, increasing numbers of clients are willing to embrace this new method of communication for gaining psychological assistance, a phenomenon which seems likely to increase as future generations become more at ease with technology being part of their everyday lives.
Online counselling and therapy services already exist; it is therefore incumbent on the profession to keep up with the phenomena and examine this emerging field with a view to establishing its effectiveness and, if effective, how it can best be utilised. To this end, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) published an initial discussion document (Lago et al. 1999) and more formal guidelines (Goss et al. 2001). The latter document set out to provide the most thorough and precise guidance that could be offered to practitioners and users of online services that could be produced at the time, and was written in consultation with international experts in the field, including representatives of a number of professional bodies around the world. This chapter is partly based on these BACP documents and highlights a number of ethical and practical aspects of therapeutic communication via the exchange of emails between practitioner and client (asynchronous therapy), and the use of internet relay chat (IRC, synchronous therapy), both using the written (typed) word.
The values, principles, ethical considerations and the general skills and competencies needed to be a therapist in any modality are taken automatically to