How E-Therapy Got Started

Courtesy of "Web Therapy"

Courtesy of "Web Therapy"

Today, skyping with a therapist is so ubiquitous, Showtime has even spoofed it in Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow. But when did e-therapy actually get started? Although mental health professionals are notorious for being late adopters of tech, there were a few pioneering therapists who realized the potential of the world wide web back when Friends was only on TV once a week.

It all started in the mid-1980s at Cornell with a guy named Uncle Ezra. He was a fictional character created by psychologist Jerry Feist who wanted students to be able to ask questions anonymously using the school's intranet. In his heyday in the 90s, Uncle Ezra answered between 10-20 questions a week from people all over the web, ranging from serious topics like suicide to less critical like how long it takes a tulip to bloom. He’s still around, but waaay more focused on the Cornell admissions process.

E-therapy as we know it today really started to get going in 1995. That’s the year Dr. David Sommers decided to launch a service where therapy patients could ask him more than a single question at a time. He started counseling patients all over the world exclusively online, which earned him the title as “the pioneer of e-therapy.”

Lots of other docs caught on, and soon a tech-savvy patient named Martha Ainsworth decided the web needed a “clearinghouse for mental health websites.” She created Metanoia to help people learn the pros and cons of e-therapy, and connected them to the good ones. By the time she stopped updating Metanoia in 2001, she had more than 300 E-therapy sites in her directory.

If you type “e-therapy” into Google today, you’ll get more than 11 million search results. A handful of companies—TalkSpace, BetterHelp, BreakThrough—  offer therapy via chat, video, and text.