Revolutionizing Mental Health Treatment with Virtual Therapy
In the years leading up to 2020, most psychologists carried out therapy in an in-person setting. Although virtual therapy was sometimes available, the majority (64%) of professionals had never used telehealth prior to the emergence of the pandemic, as revealed by the American Psychological Association in their study.
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered our daily lives. People were filled with fear and anxiety when going out in public, as breathing in the same air as someone else was no longer safe. Unfortunately, mass unemployment and self-isolation only added to the emotional distress many Americans were feeling. In response, they sought out help in unprecedented numbers.
As a practicing therapist, I had a hard choice to make: either risk my safety (as well as my clients) by seeing patients in person, or transition my practice to the virtual realm without much knowledge of providing telepsychology. I realized if I were going to continue in business and help my clients, who needed me now more than ever, I knew I had to transition my practices to an online setting.
But I have to admit, the transition was not easy. With a few sessions over the phone with my clients, I realized the change was needed, and I needed to act fast!
Investigating the standard approach to face-to-face counseling
Like most therapists, I view my office as more than just a physical space for sessions. Patients find that the environment is comforting and secure, allowing them to feel at ease while focusing on the meeting.
For as long as I have been in practice, most of my clinical work centers around face-to-face therapy, and I've heard several clients describe it as a "sacred and safe room." Research, however, has shown that the key element to providing effective care is not the environment, but the relationship between practitioner and patient. This knowledge gave me the assurance to progress.
The pandemic pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deliver something that I had thought about, but had not had the resources, time, or the approval from insurer companies to do so. Change is a frightening thing, even for healthcare workers.
Facilitating a speedy transition to online therapy
Insurers were slow to respond, but did make the change in response to the surge for mental health services during the pandemic, revising protocol to make online therapy through programs such as Zoom, Google Meet and Teams more readily available. This served to guarantee that people had the means to obtain aid and comfort when they needed it the most. Companies seem to be popping up everywhere to provide technologically disadvantaged therapists like me, a means to set appointments and bill through their secure systems. Unfortunately, many charged outrageous fees which meant practitioners either need to significantly raise fees, or earn half of what we were accustomed to making. For me, the choice was obvious. I didn't have the heart to increase my rates.
Like many of my colleagues, I had apprehensions about virtual therapy, with their major worries being:
Will potential patients be attracted to this service?
Is it possible to develop a strong relationship with the patient via video conferencing?
Is it feasible to provide good care solely through virtual means?
From my research, I knew the use of technology in the classroom had been advantageous for students and teachers alike. It appeared to provide new opportunities for learning, as well as make lessons more engaging. Additionally, it can help to foster collaboration between students, helping them to learn from one another. Technology can also help teachers to better assess student progress in the classroom.
During those early, daunting months, the protection and solidarity supplied by virtual therapy reassured both practitioners and those receiving treatment. We did not disregard the oddness and uneasiness of the situation; instead, we accepted and processed those emotions without prejudice.
According to a survey conducted by the APA, only two months into the pandemic, an overwhelming majority of psychiatrists had shifted to conducting over 75 percent of their caseloads through teletherapy. Moreover, these professionals stated that telehealth visits resulted in better access to care, fewer cancellations, and a general high rate of patient satisfaction.
Examining the advantages and disadvantages of virtual therapy
When it comes to telepsychology, there are both pros and cons that must be weighed. Thus, it's essential to decide which approach is most appropriate for one's individual situation and objectives. People are fragile, and some require special handling and direction to understand complicated emotions. The fact is, teletherapy is not the best avenue for everyone; however, for most, it is viable way to get the help they need, when they need it.
If you continue to be apprehensive, here are a few thoughts and benefits to consider:
Convenience: Patients are able to access therapy from any comfortable location, such as their home, car, or other private setting, which is a major advantage. Parents can work a session into their schedule during nap time, and medical professionals on the frontline of the pandemic can make a call between patients.
Decreasing the perceived obstacles to treatment: For people already dealing with depression or anxiety, the process of finding a therapist, arranging an appointment, and showing up can be really challenging. Using email to start a relationship and holding sessions online is easier for many, resulting in better attendance.
Accessible for those with restricted mobility: Even before the pandemic, there were already millions of people who couldn't easily attend traditional therapy sessions. People with disabilities or a lack of transportation now have access to the care they need whenever they need it.
The usage of technology has become increasingly popular in recent years; this is due to the fact that it can help to facilitate many tasks. In particular, it can make activities such as communication and problem-solving much easier and simpler. Nowadays, technology is being used more and more frequently in all aspects of life, from academic research to entertainment. As a result, it has become an essential element for many people.
However, there continue to be cons of virtual therapy, which include:
No access to telehealth services if no internet : Those who don't have Wi-Fi or reliable web access are unable to take advantage of telehealth services.
Less control over client's environment : Maintaining confidentiality and privacy is a key job of a psychiatrist, but with telehealth, it's not always possible to make sure the patient is alone during their session, which can be a risk for potential abuse.
Reading body language is tough : Therapists are trained to pick up on non-verbal cues and behaviors, but during virtual sessions, only the head and shoulders are usually visible. This is especially problematic when working with vulnerable populations such as children, elders, and dependent adults.
Mental health care in the coming years
A look into the potential of what the future holds for treatments of mental health issues is upon us. Innovative methods are being developed and the possibilities are seemingly limitless. Health professionals are exploring new ways to help those in need, and the potential of these emerging treatments is vast.
It is impossible to guarantee what the future holds, yet patients and medical practitioners have made it clear that online therapy is advantageous and should stay a possibility once the pandemic is over.
Unfortunately, there continues to be a stigma surrounding mental health, which stops people from getting help. If you, are someone you know, is hurting and need of help, please reach out and contact me or another mental health provider in your area.
You do not need to go through this alone.