Mental health therapy: Are in-person or online sessions better when seeking help?

From convenience and connection to personality type and pricing, patients and professionals open up about what to expect

Online sessions are conducted from the comfort of one's home, but therapists may be able to pick up on body language better face-to-face. Getty Images
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A problem shared is a problem halved, but reaching out for professional mental health support can be a daunting task.

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions and the fear of being judged continue to discourage some from seeking therapy. In addition, the logistical challenges of attending therapy sessions in person can be a barrier to reaching out.

The recent rise of online therapy has opened avenues for people to access mental health support from the comfort of their own homes, but does online therapy have the same benefits as the traditional in-person approach?

From logistics and cost to personality type, there are multiple factors to consider when deciding on a method. Here, The National speaks to a local expert, plus people who have tried both online and in-person therapy, to help decide the best approach for you.

‘I feel more in control from home’

As well as its convenience and affordability, PR director Sana Alvi, 30, chose online therapy for the comfort and security she feels in her own home in Dubai.

“I feel more in control when I attend a session from a space that is in my comfort zone,” she says. “I communicate better, process my thoughts better and have the space to instantly reflect on the session once it’s over, all in an environment that calms me down.”

This wasn’t a plush Dh700-an-hour session
Sana Alvi, PR director

Alvi’s first experience of online therapy was towards the end of the Covid-19 lockdown, but despite face-to-face appointments being available, she opted for online — initially because of the lower price and convenience.

“In true Dubai fashion, I chose online therapy for the same reason that I hired a personal trainer to come to my building over a fancy gym membership: the convenience of it,” she says. “This wasn’t a plush Dh700-an-hour session. It didn’t require me to drive anywhere and was an engagement with a professional who did not reside in the country.”

Once the session concluded, her first thought was: “It truly trumps everything else. It’s a 60-minute commitment and it gets the job done from my phone or my laptop.”

Alvi has previously tried in-person therapy, but says and felt a lot more vulnerable in the “alien” space.

“I had a bad experience where I found myself overwhelmed during an in-person session a few years ago,” she says. “Not only was I unable to continue, but the combination of being somewhat vulnerable and realising you are in alien space with someone you’re no longer able to communicate with is a scary feeling.”

Despite being an advocate for online therapy, Alvi accepts it has its limitations. “When something is done for convenience, there’s a chance you start taking it lightly,” she says. “I have missed multiple weeks because the session coincides with a breakfast plan, family brunch or yoga class.

“It somehow becomes that very flexible thing you can play around with because you haven’t committed to visiting someone’s office.”

‘Building a connection is important’

For Sharan Sunner, 35, who also lives in Dubai, nothing beats the intimacy of an in-person therapy session, especially when it comes to building trust.

“I prefer face-to-face therapy as I found it easier to build a connection,” she says, “It’s also important for a therapist to be able to read your body language.”

It was important to have a therapist who had an understanding of being an expat in the UAE, which is why I wanted someone based here
Sharan Sunner, PR managing director

Sunner, a PR managing director, believes that personality type is an important factor when deciding on a therapy method, and encourages everyone to consider what suits them beyond mere convenience.

“I’m a bricks-and-mortar type of learner, which means I get more benefit from physical interaction, so in-person therapy suits my personality better,” she says.

While online sessions offer access to therapists virtually all over the world, which Sunner says is “brilliant and makes it more accessible" to people, she says she had one specific need in mind.

“It was important to have a therapist who had an understanding of being an expat in the UAE and those shared experiences, which is why I wanted someone based here.”

‘Covid changed everything’

Journalist Yousra Zaki, 32, has tried both online and in-person therapy and made the transition to remote sessions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There are many advantages to both, but my preference is online therapy,” she says.

Fewer clinics accept my health insurance, so I decided to go online
Yousra Zaki, journalist

“Pre-pandemic, I never even thought about chatting with someone over Zoom. I used to go to the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Jumeirah. They took my insurance, and it was relatively affordable.

“These days, therapy is more in demand in the UAE and fewer clinics accept my health insurance, so I decided to go online, not just because it's more convenient, but because it's also a lot more affordable.”

Of her experience, she says talk therapy sessions cost about Dh700 to Dh800. “With insurance, this number usually drops down to Dh200, but without insurance, it's not always accessible.

“My online therapy costs me Dh70 per hour. I decided to go for a therapist based in India, so the exchange rate is in my favour and the time difference isn't too much.”

Aside from the financial benefits, Zaki also enjoys the flexibility of online sessions, usually logging in from home or during a walk. “I prefer being in the comfort of my home rather than in a therapist’s office, where you need to arrive early, check in, pay and wait in the waiting room,” she says.

‘Any therapy is better than no therapy’

Anne Jackson, a clinical therapist and founder of One Life Coaching, offers both online and in-person sessions and finds different personality types opt for different methods.

“Sometimes people who have social phobias and social anxiety prefer to work together online but, in those cases, we build up to meeting in person, because that’s an important part of getting over that anxiety,” she says.

I’d encourage anyone who needs the support to find something that works for them
Anne Jackson, clinical therapist and founder of One Life Coaching

“Therapists also pick up on energy a lot better in person, and there are a lot of non-verbal cues that allow us to build a bigger picture of what’s going on.”

Jackson insists that online therapy isn’t always cheaper, with block bookings that aim to charge for sessions that may not be needed. “I don't want people to feel like they are financially obliged to having to come and see me because they paid upfront,” she says. “Not everybody needs the same amount of therapy and it’s good to keep things flexible.”

The main advantage of online therapy, she believes, is convenience, allowing busy people to slot a session into their day. “Any therapy is better than no therapy,” she says. “I’d encourage anyone who needs the support to find something that works for them.”

UAE therapy directory

Camali Clinic

Camali offers a holistic approach to adult and child mental health through its three clinics across Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with sessions also available online; 04 276 6064,

LightHouse Arabia

One of the more established therapy centres in the UAE, LightHouse Arabia offers online and in-person services, including webinars, support groups and traditional therapy; 04 380 2088,

One Life Coaching

Clinical therapist and life coach Ann Jackson has more than 10 years of experience and offers both online and in-person services from her clinic in Jumeirah Village Circle, Dubai; 050 518 6821,

Priory Wellbeing Centre

Through its centres in Dubai Healthcare City and Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi, Priory offers in-person and online therapy sessions; 04 245 3800,

The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre

The centre offers both online and in-person counselling and psychotherapy sessions at Dubai Healthcare City; 04 422 1606,

Updated: April 16, 2023, 4:01 AM