A lot of terms that used to be unfamiliar have become part of our daily vocabulary due to the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing, flattening the curve, herd immunity. Another one of these is telehealth.
What is online counselling/telehealth?
‘Telehealth’ is just a fancy word for online healthcare, including online counselling. For the most part, it’s provided via video calls or telephone. Although in-person consultations can feel more familiar, they may not be sensible for many of us right now, especially people with underlying health issues, busy lives and families, limited mobility, geographic isolation or those living far away from high-quality services.
Telehealth fills the gap for those people who do not want – or are not able – to visit their therapist directly. For many people who suffer from anxiety, especially those who are triggered by concerns about their health, online counselling can bridge the gap between them and their therapist without adding to their fears, or triggering their anxiety. It also protects both the patient and the therapist from potentially being exposed to COVID-19.
Who can access online counselling?
Anyone can access telehealth counselling so long as the counsellor or psychologist you choose offers it. Anyone with a computer, or a smartphone with a camera can access it. Anyone looking to get some advice to help them with their relationships, work-life balance or mental health that wants to do it from the comfort of their own couch.
Benefits of Online Counselling
- It enables you to stay home and practice social distancing
- Home is a soothing environment for some people, and can make you feel more comfortable
- It’s more convenient, especially for people taking care of kids or loved ones
- It can be slotted around your life
- If you’re geographically isolated, you can choose anyone without limitations to access
- You can speak to an expert at a time convenient for you, not just during usual office hours
Is online counselling effective?
- Some people can find online counselling a little impersonal
- But therapists skilled in telehealth are good at finding ways to connect with you, even via video calls
- It requires a stable internet connection and suitable devices
- But most telehealth counsellors will have a phone-call as a back-up plan
- It can be hard to find a quiet, uninterrupted place
- But your telehealth therapist will be understanding of this, as long as you feel able to talk openly
There are obvious limitations to online counselling, but it’s important to remember that it’s a great option for keeping us on track with our mental health a time we need it the most.
Is online counselling safe?
Online counselling is safe so long as you are working with an experienced mental healthcare practitioner, and conduct the counselling somewhere secure so as not to compromise your confidentiality.
What does an online counselling session look like?
To access telehealth, you will need a quiet, private space, a device (laptop, iPad or even smartphone will do) with a camera, microphone and speaker and a stable internet connection.
We know that this isn’t always feasible for everyone, and that shouldn’t be a barrier to the provision of good mental healthcare. If any of these are a problem for you, speak to your GP or local council. An alternative option is that you can access telehealth services via telephone.
Can online counselling help me?
Telehealth-delivered therapy is for people seeking help for a variety of situations that can impact mental health, including but not limited to:
- Family conflicts and worries
- Anger management or emotional regulation
- Stress, worry
- Panic disorder
If you suffer from mental health issues, telehealth can be a powerful alternative to travelling to a clinic or a therapist’s office. It is also helpful for people suffering from disabilities or who are mobility-impaired.
However, online therapy might not be suited for you if you are experiencing a crisis or do not feel comfortable with the medium; don’t feel that you can’t seek appropriate, in-person help if you really need it.
How does online counselling work?
When you book your appointment, ask about cost and specify your needs so that you can book in for a time that suits you. Once you’ve agreed on an appointment, establish the chosen platform and familiarise yourself with it; Zoom is a great way to video call, but you can also use Skype, FaceTime and others.
When your appointment time comes, find a quiet place to sit undistracted, get ready 5-10 minutes before so that you’re relaxed and invested in the session.
Some tips and tricks for making online counselling work, from the therapist’s mouth
Make sure you can obtain a level of privacy at home to make yourself comfortable and relaxed talking about difficult or personal issues.
Ask the people around you not to distract you, turn off devices including the television and your mobile phone, to allow you to properly zone into your therapy session.
Test-run your video calling capacity
Check that the internet connection is stable in the area you want to conduct the session in, and practice using the device to make sure you can make the most out of your time during the session.
Ask if unsure
If you’re unsure what has been said, or your video call freezes, ask your therapist to repeat what they have said. Understand that there may be issues, and accommodate for them. Don’t be ashamed of asking them to repeat themselves – they’re here for you.
Voice your issues
If there are aspects of telehealth that you find difficult, let your therapist know, and they can help come up with strategies to mitigate against any issues. Work with your therapist to improve the quality of the experience.
How have our clients found online counselling?
“Before online counselling I was nervous about how that might work and also how to build a relationship and trust with someone online. I decided to give it a go because I was in lockdown, it was safe, affordable and it was more flexible outside of traditional office hours.”
“I had an initial get to know you session the purpose of which was to see if we were a good fit for each other. I am glad we took the time to do that, because it set us up for success in the next and other sessions and helped build rapport and trust quickly.”
“Now I really look forward to our sessions and don’t see being online as a barrier, but I think I prefer it actually. I can have a cup of coffee, be in my Ugg boots and in some ways it makes me more natural and relaxed which means I am being more open and honest and getting the most out of my sessions. We did our session via Zoom and the only issue has been the internet connection on very few occasions when we switched to phone.”
“I would say online counselling for me has been a roaring success, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to give it a go.”
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.