What is Telephone Counseling?

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Martha Rosenfield, an expert practitioner and the charter chair of the United Kingdom Telephone Helplines Association, defines telephone counseling as “an ongoing, contracted relationship between the practitioner and client (or clients if a therapy group is established) carried out entirely by telephone.”1

Similarly, telehealth services (which include non-professional services) have been defined as:

“the use of telecommunications and information technology to provide access to health assessment, diagnosis, intervention, consultation, supervision, education, and information across distance.”2 Both telehealth (non-professional) and telephone counseling services have been acknowledged for over 50 years, and were made popular by crisis hotlines that appeared n the early 1950’s.

One researcher details:

“Crisis hotlines have been around since at least he early 50’s. The Samaritans [a crisis/suicide prevention group based out of the United Kingdom] started a suicide prevention hotline in London in 1953.”3

Whether the true origin is 1953, 1973 (as one researcher cited in 2002)4, or 2003, there is no contesting that telephone counseling agencies fill important roles by providing information, support, and referrals to counseling professionals. For example, telehealth agencies have been used to:

  • Educate and guide diabetes patients
  • Counsel prison inmates
  • Provide guidance to teens
  • Help parents with defiant children
  • Educate the public about cancer prevention
  • Remind women of scheduled mammograms

And fill many other needs. For example, a hybrid telehealth service, by utilizing an electronic paging system, successfully encouraged medication compliance among HIV patients.5

Regarding professional telephone counseling therapy, services range from:

  • Treating disorders one-on-one
  • To group counseling
  • To the related field of life-coaching6

Rosenfield writes regarding the current state of counseling by telephone:

It seems incredible that as recently as 1997, some practitioners regarded therapy by telephone, anecdotally, as ‘not real therapy’, and even with some derision. Yet today, many practitioners use the telephone for some or all counseling and psychotherapy sessions, and also for supervision.7

Telephone counseling is certainly the longest standing, most wide-spread, and best acknowledged form of Online Counseling. But how many professionals really use it? And how often?


1Rosenfield, M. (2003). Telephone counselling and psychotherapy in practice. In S. Goss, K. Anthony (Eds.), Technology in counseling and psychotherapy: A practitioner’s guide (pp. 93- 108), Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

2Nichelson, D. (1998). Telehealth and the evolving health care system: Strategic opportunities for professional psychology. Professional psychology: Research and practice, 29, 527-535.

3Slavich, S. (2003). The status of online mental health services. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Wichita State University. Wichita.

4Lester, D., & Brockopp, G. (ed.) (2002). Crisis intervention and counseling by telephone, Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas

5Boucher, J., Pronk, N., & Gahling, E. (2003, Fall). Telephone based lifestyle counseling. Diabetes Spectrum, 13(4), 190; Magaletta, P., Fagan, T., & Peyrot, M. (2000, October).     Telehealth in the federal bureau of prisons: inmates’ perceptions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31(5), 497-502; Cruz, B. R., SanMartin, A. H., Guitierrez, B. L. N.

Farias, M. V., & Mora, I. S. (2001, Spring). Identifying young people’s guidance needs through telephone counseling. Adolescence, 36(141); Fina, A. L. (1986). The effectiveness of a telephone counseling service for discipline problems. Dissertation Abstracts, Dissertation Abstracts International, 47(25b), 2160; Lynch, D. J., Tamburrino, M., & Nagel, R. (1997,  March). Telephone counseling for patients with minor depression: Preliminary findings in a     family practice setting. Journal of Family Practice, 44(3), 293-299; Henderson, C.W. (2000, March 18). Telephone counseling more effective than print media. Women’s Health Weekly  (2002, September). Internet paging system helps improve adherence. Aids Alert  [Review of Twelve week outcome of a cue-controlled paging system to increase ART adherence.

6Lynch, Tamburrino, (1997); Rosenfield, M., & Smillie, E. (1998, February). Group counselling by telephone. British Journal of Guidance & Counseling, 26(1), 11; Thiesen, N., LaMattina, F., & McKinley, D. (2005, October). Counselors turned coach tell all. Workshop at the American Association of Christian Counselors Take Me to the Cross World Conference, Nashville.

7Rosenfield, (2003), p. 93.