Email counselling (Part 1) - What is email counselling?

Updated: Mar 29




Email counselling - unlike face-to-face, video or phone sessions, is all text-based. Counsellors and clients never see each other’s faces or hear each other's voices.



It can be likened to letter writing in that the counsellor and client exchange password-protected confidential therapeutic emails. Often a word limit or amount of time spent on each email is agreed, together with an agreement on when the therapist will read and respond.



Following Suler’s '24-hour rule' it is common for therapists to agree to respond 2 or 3 days after they have received their client's email as it gives time for them to write and reflect and then wait 24 hours before sending (Suler, 1998). This time delay means that the counsellor and client do not communicate in real time. This is known as asynchronous counselling making email counselling unique as a form of therapy.



Looking at the history, email counselling is much older than video call counselling. Jones and Stokes (2009) point out that therapeutic writing is in fact not new, as Freud is known to have corresponded by letter with clients before email even existed. Also, since the mid 90s, the Samaritans have offered email support.



So, given this long history, it is not surprising that counsellors began to offer this type of therapy as the popularity and convenience of using email for personal and work correspondence has grown over the last 20–30 years.



When I trained as an online counsellor with the Academy for Online Counselling and Psychotherapy I was surprised to learn from my peers in my class that email counselling was, for most people, the least favourite online medium. This seems to mirror the feelings from clients too. I stood out as loving email counselling. Read more about why I love Online Counselling here.



Why are counsellors reluctant to offer this way of working? Possibly because it can be hard. There is lots to think about around boundaries, misunderstandings and disinhibition.



I often have people enquiring about starting online counselling who don’t specify how they want to meet – almost as if video call is the default. Why is this? My guess is because video call counselling is most similar to traditional face-to-face sessions in that the client and counsellors can see and hear each other.



It is a shame that – in my experience – many clients and counsellors alike feel reluctant to try email counselling. Over time I have noticed how many clients end up ‘falling into’ email counselling, opting to give it a go if they are unable to make their usual session time as we do not then need to meet in ‘real time’.



I have seen many clients try email counselling after long periods of meeting by video call and it is amazing to see how freed up they are as they feel less embarrassed and able to say what they really want to say. If you think about it, it makes sense as in everyday life people often find it easier to text/email a friend if they need to say something that is difficult to say out loud.