You’ve probably come across an online mental health forum before. It’s a site for talking about all things mental health, from depression to breakups, stress, anxiety, family issues, and so on. But now there’s this new thing (which isn’t really a new thing) everyone’s talking about: online counseling. And you’re probably a little confused. Are mental health forums and online counseling the same thing? The short answer is no. But the long answer is more important. Keep reading to learn about how online counseling and mental health forums differ, as well as how they can both help you on your mental health journey.

What Exactly Is Online Counseling?

While both online counseling and mental health forums can help you work through whatever issue you may dealing with, online counseling involves real, certified, and experienced counselors. In fact, it’s essentially the same thing as traditional therapy that takes place in a clinician’s office, only it’s done via some medium of technology. Here are a few basics to understand:

  • Online counseling involves working with a licensed mental health professional.
  • It is done via telephone, video call, or chat widget.
  • It makes receiving counseling more convenient, and for some, more comfortable.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Jessica Cline delves into the premise of online counseling, as well as its benefits: “Online appointments can be done via video, text message, or phone. With online counseling, patients do not need to worry about taking off work or commuting to their appointment. I find that new parents, busy professionals, and college students really prefer having the ability to schedule appointments that fit their schedule,” she explains. “Picture a mom with two young children that has to find a sitter or bundle the kids up just to attend her appointment every week. Instead, that mom can have a session in her pajamas that fits her schedule.”

She goes on to explain how online counseling is a good option for individuals with certain mental illnesses or reservations about opening up: “Individuals with anxiety often feel more comfortable attending appointments online as they are more in control of their environment. It’s often more comfortable for people to open up when they are in the familiar comfort of their own homes. Some people feel less inhibited talking to a therapist about vulnerable issues online rather than face-to-face.”

What About Mental Health Forums?

Mental health discussion forums, on the other hand, don’t always call on the knowledge and expertise of a counselor or therapist. Instead, these sites enable users to become involved in important discussions about mental health for free. You can ask questions about an issue you’re experiencing (say, signs of depression or dealing with a breakup), give advice to someone else on such topics, and ultimately find camaraderie in caring about and discussing mental health with other users. That’s not to say, however, that mental health professionals are never involved.

Sometimes, therapists and counselors do pop in to answer important questions about mental health and ensure users are getting correct, useful information—these are the best mental health forums. In addition, some online mental health forums are moderated by mental health professionals, like Thriveworks Mental Health Discussion Board. Here are the important takeaways:

  • Mental health forums are free boards on the web to discuss mental health.
  • You can post a question or answer another’s question related to mental health.
  • Sometimes, licensed counselors and therapists get involved to increase the value of these discussion boards.

This discussion board is like most other forums, the primary purpose being to provide a safe place for users to vent, talk, and get reliable information about mental health. But it also offers an additional element that only improves the overall experience of the site: there are several mental health professionals who monitor the page and offer feedback to the users. This means you’re guaranteed to get reliable, factual information.

Which Resource Is Right for Me? Online Counseling vs. Mental Health Forums

As I touched on earlier, both online counseling and mental health forums are useful resources—granted you do your research and find a certified, experienced counselor or a forum that offers reliable information. Here are a few considerations that will help you weigh the pros and cons and decide which resource will best help you:

1. If you need a diagnosis…

Are you experiencing symptoms of a mental illness? You need to meet with a mental health professional to receive diagnosis and begin treatment. Not to mention that mental health forums are not proven to help individuals with certain mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, while therapy is scientifically proven to be an effective method of treatment. You can meet with a counselor online via video chat or phone call.

2. If you’re curious about how others have dealt with a mental health problem…

If you’re curious about how other people have moved on after a tough breakup or how they coped with their parents’ divorcing, a mental health forum can prove to be a great resource. Again, these forums are a safe place for discussing issues of the like. That said, online counseling can also help you with these problems, as licensed counselors can provide specific feedback for your unique situation, as well as use their expertise and experience to help you.

3. If you want to help others who are struggling…

If you simply want to offer tips or feedback to other people who are struggling, utilizing your own experience, a mental health forum is the perfect place to do so. You can visit these boards and get involved in the conversation. Doing so will help many others to cope or manage the challenges in their life.

In summary, online counseling and mental health forums can be helpful. If you aren’t sure which resource you should consult, think about the severity of your problem and what is necessary to solving/managing this problem. Then, give online counseling, mental health forums, or both, a try!