When I realized I would have to adapt my practice to teletherapy because of the pandemic I never imagined that I’d be talking to a client sitting in his kitchen, wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. But that’s exactly what happened. At the risk of sounding self-serving, the rise in teletherapy has been a beneficial aspect of this pandemic, particularly for therapists who are comfortable using the online platform to continue with their work. Fortunately, I’m one of them. I’ve found that the flexible arrangements of online therapy are well suited to the limitations of the pandemic for both client and therapist. And I’m not the only one who is finding lots of advantages in the greatly expanded availability offered. Most of my colleagues who either work in a practice or are on their own are finding similar benefits.
At first, I had some doubts about the effectiveness of delivering services online. Was it really going to be as productive when I was not able to be face-to-face with clients? Would my clients even follow me to this new platform and method? I was actually surprised at the speed at which I was able to make the transition; within a week of the state mandates to shut down, I was able to maintain my caseload without having to go into the office. Once I had established a new schedule, I quickly discovered a number of benefits that are offered by online access to therapy.
From my point of view, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with clients while they are in their own space. Something happens when you’re going to a session; whether you’re coming straight from work or departing from home and possibly leaving kids or a spouse behind, a client typically transforms his or herself into whom they think they need to be in the therapist’s office. Now, during a session, I’m dropping into their home where they tend to be more themselves. This gives me an opportunity to get a clearer picture of their experience and at the same time puts them at ease and less guarded.
From the standpoint of the client, it becomes easier to schedule appointments without the need to allow time for transportation to and from the therapist’s office. Parents might be able to schedule a session if their kids are old enough to give them some privacy for an hour or so. Couples can attend a session from two different locations at the same time. And for some, the teletherapy option is offering people who have never pursued such treatment an opportunity to do so with a level of privacy not available in traditional settings. “It can…help address stigma for patients seeking psychological services for the first time,” says Dhara Meghani, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of San Francisco. “For patients who have never before sought care from a therapist due to various barriers —including concern about being seen at a physical clinic—the option to obtain services online can be a port of entry into mental health care,” she says. This was the case for a client of mine who conducted her sessions from her phone while in her car at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking their coffee and using their Wi-Fi.
The popular magazine Psychology Today offers a “Find a Therapist” function on their website that provides services in every state of the country and in every city you can think of. Nearly all the therapists with whom I am in touch have reported an increase in both requests for therapy and online appointments. Much of this has been necessitated by the crisis of the virus and probably would not have come about as rapidly were it not for the dire needs raised by the pandemic. The CDC reports that, “Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.” In response, independent online platforms have sprung up to allow clinicians nearly instant access and availability to clients in a HIPPA compliant virtual environment (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
In addition to providing resources for finding a therapist, Psychology Today offers an online platform as well. The ease with which services have transferred from in-person to online was remarkable to watch and undoubtedly a very much needed change. Individuals, couples, parents are suddenly able to access support for what had for many of them become extremely stressful and demanding conflicts. The Psychology Today platform even provides a pretty picture of a calm waiting room that greets clients at the start of their scheduled session.
But it’s not only online appointments and sessions that have been on the rise. The range of services that have materialized to fill the need for people to understand how the pandemic has impacted their lives has stretched the typical expectations of what once constituted a “therapy session.” There are now both websites and apps available to provide access to phone and text sessions. This has further widened the gamut for what is called traditional therapy. With the current choices of resources, mental health needs can be addressed at various levels of complexity and detail. It is still important to be an informed user of these services; beginning with trying to identify some of the issues that require attention–from getting assistance with an isolated situation arising from the pandemic or other disturbances that might be classified as adjustment disorders, to finally getting help with a long-standing difficulty such as the effects of childhood trauma or what are referred to as personality disorders.
Finding the right balance between easy access to services and the most comfortable rapport with your therapist will generally maximize chances of a positive outcome. Teletherapy can be an invaluable resource to regain emotional and functional equilibrium when it is so desperately needed. As always, you should check with your insurance provider for coverage information as some teletherapy sessions are not covered by insurance plans; although currently, the Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging both mental health and routine health care providers to use telehealth services. In either case, help is as close as your computer or your phone.