The History of Online Counseling: How Did It Come to Be?

The History of Online Counseling: How Did It Come to Be?

It was the day of my dissertation defense. I had made it through a brief 30-minute presentation on my study “Online Counseling: Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages among Counselors” and I had spent the next hour defending the merits of my research method and findings.

Because of good coaching from my dissertation committee Chair, I had survived some hard questions from the faculty:

“Why did you decide to run this descriptive statistic?”
“Why are you presenting your data in this format?”
“What did you do to ensure external validity?”
“What would you do differently if you had the ability to start over?”

As I said, an hour and a half had passed, and the faculty was winding down their inquisition. They were actually beginning to debate amongst themselves—a good sign, I was told earlier. The room was loosening up a bit.

“I have this in the bag,” I thought.

Then the chair of the department volleyed me a new question. “Anthony, did you consider running the Manglos analysis on your data?”

To this, I answered, “Yes, actually. Several studies I reviewed ran that analysis, but I decided it just wasn’t necessary for what I was trying to determine with my study.”

The department Chair smiled and sat back in his seat, suitably impressed with my quick and informed response; and everyone else in the room seemed similarly pleased (it wasn’t until after they told me I passed my defense that I came to find out there was another reason I didn’t incorporate the Manglos analysis. It doesn’t exist).

What Is the First Instance of Online Counseling?

On another occasion, I was giving a presentation on online counseling to a group of mental health professionals, and again (not learning my lesson the first time) I ended with a question and answer period. This time, someone from the crowd asked, “Do you think someday a computer could pretend to be a counselor and communicate with a client?”

The room became silent. Such an odd question, how would I answer? If I answer yes, I might be a quack. I could end up on, and how can you believe anything a quack has to say? If I answer “absolutely not,” well, didn’t I just give a presentation in which I admitted that future technologies are almost impossible to predict? Fortunately, unlike the Manglos question I actually knew the answer to this one. So, I took a deep breath, paused, shuffled my notes, and looked back at the group to say “That’s a great question. Yes. That occurred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966 with the creation of ELIZA, a computer program that functions as a Rogerian therapist. Many consider ELIZA the earliest dawn of online counseling.” Then I leaned on my podium, laughed in spite of myself and watched everyone’s mouths dropped open, as they processed this history of online counseling.

ELIZA: Origins of Online Counseling

The history of online therapy begins with the ELIZA technology, which makes you believe you are talking to a real-life therapist. In reality, you are talking to a computer program. Here’s how it works: you talk to ELIZA via a chat window, similar to the AIM model. You type in the “input” bar and then ELIZA responds. So, for example, if you say, “Hello, how are you,” she will respond with a mostly fitting answer, such as “Fine, how are you?”

In summary, ELIZA gives the illusion of human intelligence. You’re probably wondering how she serves as a therapist. What many of us seek from therapy is the guidance of another. While ELIZA isn’t a real person, but a computer, we still feel like we are being guided by a real person, which fulfills this desire.

More History of Online Therapy

So, how did online counseling become what it is today? What is the history of online therapy? Here are some more interesting facts about how it came to be:

  • Staff at Stanford and UCLA used linked computers to demonstrate a therapy session during the 1972 International Conference on Computers.
  • People were receiving and providing mental health support via telephone as early as 1960.
  • Psychologists offered mental health support via the internet, starting in 1986 with Dear Uncle Ezra at Cornell University.
  • Mental health forums and chats increased in popularity in the 1990s.
  • In 1995, Dr. David Sommers used emails and real-time chats to counsel hundreds of clients across the world.
  • In 2012, Talkspace was invented, which offers unlimited messaging therapy; clients can utilize text, video, and voice messages.

Are you impress by the history of online counseling? Try this technology out for yourself. If you think you could benefit from online counseling, visit our online counseling page.

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