Sheffield University may soon be able to offer e-therapy in a pilot project that could revolutionise student counselling.
Jeannie Wright, staff counsellor at Sheffield, said online support could be a way of reaching out to groups who do not take up offers of help through face-to-face interviews or telephone counselling.
Ms Wright said there was evidence to show the therapeutic value of "writing therapy", where clients keep emotional diaries, and this would lend itself well to online counselling.
"We would like to be able to show that sometimes online counselling is a better way of responding to both staff and student needs," she said.
Research from the Samaritans shows that young men, who are more likely to commit suicide, are also more likely to respond to e-therapy. New students in particular could benefit from writing therapy to ease the stressful transition from home to university.
Writing therapy would involve asking people to describe their problems and list possible solutions.
"This gives the client control over their problem and encourages emotional disclosures that may be difficult or impossible face-to-face," Ms Wright said.
However, there are important privacy issues to be resolved before such a service could be expanded across universities.
Ms Wright said: "A lot of our clients are already using e-therapy through chat rooms and these are unregulated. The problem comes when desperate people send messages into cyberspace - you need to be sure the person receiving them knows what they are doing."
A conference, "Writing for me, writing for you", will be held on May 15 2001 at Sheffield University.