Telehealth and more – getting psychological help online

A young woman in rural Australia closing a gate on her farm

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is a way of accessing a health appointment from a computer or smartphone, from anywhere in the country. There are lots of mental health professionals who are able to do their job using telehealth, including psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, peer workers and social workers.

It’s an idea that has existed for a while, but it’s gained popularity since the first COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

Emily’s story

‘I lived on a farm. I was 20 minutes away from town and I couldn't get anywhere by myself.’

Emily lived near Gunnedah, a small country town in rural NSW, and didn’t have many options for seeking face-to-face help with their mental health. There were one or two professionals in town that Emily might have talked to, but privacy was a big concern.

‘You definitely felt like you lacked privacy. I could name all the nurses [at the hospital where the psychologists worked] because their kids went to my school.’

Emily is now 22 and has since moved to Sydney for uni, but said that the experience of seeing a psychologist via telehealth was a big part of being able to recover and become the person they are today.

Why is telehealth a good idea?

In a telehealth booking with a mental health professional, you’ll receive the same service you’d receive from them in person. They will also have the same level of qualifications as someone you’d see in person. In fact, studies have shown that therapy done through telehealth is as helpful as talking to a health professional in person.

Here are a few reasons why seeing someone through telehealth might be a good fit for you:

  • You’ll have more options available to you than just the mental health professionals in your local area.

  • You’ll have a better chance of finding a professional who’s an excellent fit for you. For example, in the case of Emily, who felt alienated as a young queer person in a rural town, it was important for them to find someone who would understood what they were going through.

  • You feel more comfortable in your own home than in a therapist’s office. Emily went through a period of experiencing a lot of social anxiety – ‘to the point where I didn't want to leave my house. It’s comforting that you can have these conversations in your pyjamas with someone.’

  • Since you won’t have to commute to a mental health professional’s office every week or fortnight, you’ll have more time available for activities you enjoy.

What are some of the drawbacks of using telehealth services?

Sessions with an online psychologist aren’t the best solution for everyone. They might not be right for you if …

  • you find it difficult to open up to people online

  • it’s hard to find a place where you feel comfortable having a private conversation.

If you need urgent help, click here. Just like face-to-face services, telehealth services can have a waiting period before your first booking. That waiting period could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

What if I have a poor internet connection?

If you don’t have a great internet connection, telehealth might be difficult for you. However, if you can’t find somewhere nearby with a better connection, many telehealth therapists will be happy to talk over the phone instead.

How do I book a telehealth appointment?

See your GP

The easiest way to get help through telehealth is to make an appointment with your GP. You’ll have an opportunity to talk to your doctor about what’s going on in your life and about what you think might help. Your doctor will then offer their perspective and write up a mental health plan that will allow you to receive 20 sessions a year at a discounted rate with the Medicare rebate.

Book directly

Some services that use telehealth allow you to book directly, either via email or phone. These services often have a significant waiting period, so booking directly allows you to get in the queue as early as possible. This is also helpful if you already have an idea of what your needs are. If you don’t, seeing your GP first is a better option. You’ll also still need to make an appointment with a GP before your first appointment and get a mental health plan if you want to claim the Medicare rebate on your sessions.

What if costs are an issue?

For most mental health professionals you can access via telehealth, the Medicare rebate you receive won’t cover the full cost of your appointment. This means that, with most practitioners, you’ll pay a fee of somewhere between $50 and $100 per appointment (if the mental health professional you’re seeing is a psychologist). If that will be an issue for you financially, here are a few options you have:

  • If you’ve found a provider you think would work for you, you can ask them if they’ll provide you a discounted rate, as you’re experiencing financial difficulties.

  • Look for a practice that does bulk-billed (free) sessions for online appointments.

  • See the end of this article for other less expensive options for getting help.

How can I find a good telehealth provider?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most mental health professionals started using telehealth. As a result, if you’re able to find a practitioner online who seems like a good fit for you, try getting in touch with them directly to ask if they’ll do telehealth sessions with you.

Otherwise, the Australian Psychological Society’s 'find a psychologist' tool can help you find the ideal therapist to help you. To find an psychologist that offers telehealth sessions, simply run a search using this tool. Then, in the sidebar of the search results, click on ‘medicare’ and then ‘telehealth’.

A screenshot of the Australian Psychological Society's 'find a psychologist' tool.

Telehealth isn’t for me. What other options do I have?

If accessing help through telehealth isn’t for you, here are a few alternatives that you might find helpful.

  • You could chat online with a peer worker who can listen and support you. Peer workers have their own experience of tough times and mental health challenges, and recovery. Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat here.

  • You could see a mental health professional in person.

  • If you need urgent help, or if you don’t have a great internet connection, you can easily access helplines like Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) and 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). Before using telehealth services, Emily found Kids Helpline a convenient, private and free way to get support during tough times.

  • Don’t forget the people close at hand in your community, such as your friends, parents and other family members. They can be a great source of help. Depending on your situation, you might also have people available through your school, university, workplace, religious organisation or sports team who you feel you can trust.

  • The ReachOut Online Community can be a great place to share what’s on your mind, be heard by others, and learn from other young people about their experiences.

What can I do now?

  • If you’re feeling isolated living in a rural or remote area, check out some tips on how you can feel more connected to your community.

  • If you’re confused about what a ‘mental health plan’ is and how to use it, click here.