In Brief

As the use of Internet and telecommunications services continues to grow, researchers have questioned the practice of telephone counseling for general mental health. But according to a study reported in the April Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 49, No. 2), telephone counseling appears to be an effective psychological practice.

Based on the 1995 Consumer Reports finding that patients benefit greatly from face-to-face counseling, this study examined free telephone counseling offered to the employees of three large Fortune 500 companies as well as other smaller, regional companies across the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico. Both employees and their immediate family members had access to a telephone counseling agency's toll-free number. Over a three-week period, the authors surveyed a nonrandom sample of adults who called the counseling agency about mental health, relationship or job problems. Master's-level mental health professionals provided the phone counseling, using a solution-focused model of therapy. Most callers received four telephone counseling sessions.

After at least one 30-minute phone session, the counseling agency mailed a packet of questionnaires, including the Consumer Reports Annual Questionnaire (CRAQ), which asks clients to rate their specific improvement, satisfaction and global improvement as a result of telephone counseling. By using CRAQ, the researchers could compare the effectiveness of face-to-face counseling, as measured by Consumer Reports, with the effectiveness of telephone counseling.

The researchers--Robert J. Reese, PhD, of Abilene Christian University, and Collie W. Conoley, PhD, and Daniel F. Brossart, PhD, both of Texas A&M University--found that telephone counseling was beneficial and satisfactory, marked by specific improvement on the issue that lead to counseling and global improvement in emotional state. Of the 186 respondents, 68 percent reported feeling very or completely satisfied with the telephone counseling and 53 percent said they felt somewhat better as a result of counseling. The data also indicate that telephone counseling did not appear to work as well as face-to-face counseling for people who reported feeling very poorly: 31 percent of respondents who initially described that they felt very poorly reported improvement in functioning, compared with 54 percent in the Consumer Reports study of face-to-face counseling.

In contrast to face-to-face counseling, telephone counseling is convenient and less expensive--if provided in a format similar to this study's--and the anonymity of the service may provide clients with a greater sense of control, the authors note. For people who do not have access to affordable mental health care, telephone counseling may be a viable option, they add. The authors also point out that without an office, clothes and physical appearance to potentially distract them, clients being counseled via phone may be inclined to focus better on what the therapist says.