Psychologist Bob Wilson has a patient with an anger problem. The guy knows he needs help, but he doesn't want anyone at the office to know he's getting counseling. And thanks to Wilson, no one does: his patient comes to him shrouded in the anonymity of the Internet.
Despite what Woody Allen would have you believe, not everyone is comfortable talking about their therapists. And those who avoid getting help because they're worried about what their employers or colleagues will think can cost their companies as much as $3,000 a year in absenteeism and lost productivity, according to a 1993 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
But now employees can transform their desktops into couches, using a Web-based program called PROACT, from Wilson Banwell, an international psychological-services company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Companies interested in using the site sign a contract specifying the services they want. Employers pay about $3.75 per month per employee for services, ranging from couples therapy to grief counseling and group sessions for eating disorders.
President and founder Wilson insists that potential cybertherapy patients first meet face-to-face with a therapist or family physician to get a referral. "We don't want folks using the Net when they have very serious problems, such as psychosis," he says.
Subsequent "visits" with one of the company's 68 staff psychologists or 688 subcontractors take place in real time, in a password-protected on-line office. Patients also receive E-mail transcripts of their sessions, so they can ponder their emotional epiphanies in the privacy of their own homes.
In addition to one-on-one counseling, PROACT offers brochures about everything from dealing with toddler tantrums to building self-confidence.
For BC Gas, a Vancouver-based utility, the service is a savior. "We've got offices throughout the province," says Sandra Smith, a benefits analyst. "Many of our employees are in small towns and can't get the kind of psychological counseling those in cities can."