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Psychologists Advice for Upcoming Virtual Counsellors and Therapists on Online Mental Health and Wellness Platforms

August 24, 2021
Reviewed by: Lisa Misquith

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in partial or complete lockdowns across the world. Professionals who don’t come under the ‘essential worker’ category have been asked to work from home. Psychologists have been now taking online sessions as physical interactions are not permitted. In fact, online counselling has been a boon for many individuals who found it difficult to cope with the effects of the pandemic. More people have approached online counsellors to deal with the stress of staying locked at home or either losing business or even more serious issues like the loss of a loved one to coronavirus.

Online therapy isn’t a new form of counselling and has been around much before the Covid-19 pandemic. If you would consider counselling by phone as part of online therapy, then people have sought mental health support via the phone as early as the 60s. When the internet became more accessible, Dr David Sommers in 1995 created the first online therapy program, helping his clients through real-time chats and emails. 

If you are interested in being an online therapist or a virtual counsellor, then it’s one of the best times to enter the field. In this time of crisis, you will be helping many individuals who need mental health support.

Adjusting to Virtual Counselling

The World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrates World Mental Health Day on 10th October. Ahead of this event, they conducted a survey in 130 countries to see the effects of Covid-19 on mental health. As per the survey, they found out that around 70% of countries across the globe have now implemented ‘teletherapy’ (therapy session via video call) to overcome interruptions to in-person counselling sessions.

If you are a new virtual therapist with no previous experience as an in-person therapist then there is no adjustment period. You may have done a course that would teach you the ins and outs of online counselling. From setting a secure network, creating a rapport over a video call, to set up the next video sessions. However, the same is not true for an in-person therapist.

An in-person therapist venturing into the world of online therapy may have to face a few challenges. In-person therapists are trained not to just listen to their patients, but to also analyse the non-verbal cues of their patient when they are sitting in front of them. While conducting online sessions, they may find it difficult to either pick these cues over a video screen. They may also feel that they are sounding too clinical and not caring enough over a screen. It should be noted though, that in just a few sessions, most in-person therapists get the hang of online counselling and do as good a job as before.

Prerequisites for Smooth and Secure Online Therapy Sessions

As an online therapist, apart from learning clinical knowledge, you may have had extra training on the workings of different online platforms, be it in-app counselling, video conferencing, real-time chats or text-based chats.

There are a few things you need to keep in mind even before you start your counselling session. Understand the technology you are using thoroughly; for. e.g., if you are taking sessions over zoom video calls, then know the ins and outs of the zoom platform. From setting up a video session to sending the meeting link over the phone. If need be, then take help from professionals who know more about these online technologies.

Online security should be your top-most priority as it’s easy to hack anything that’s online. Make sure you have strong passwords, have proper virus protection, and your computer software is up-to-date. If you are recording the video sessions make sure that when you are saving them on your laptop, the files are password protected. It should go without saying that you need to ask your client’s permission before recording the session, and the same goes for your client too. This is the basis of forming a trusting partnership.

When it comes to payment for each session, make sure you set up a proper online payment system that is transparent. You don’t want your clients worrying about their credit card or bank details being hacked or leaked. Also, decide beforehand when the payment will be made, before or after a session. This will help both you and the client to focus more on the session without worrying about the payments.

Conducting Effective Online Sessions and Building Trust

If your online client is someone you have been counselling in person in the start by offering assurance that you will do your best in helping them over this new format. Acknowledge any fears they may have and take necessary actions to mitigate them before you start a session. If the online client is a new patient, then start by informing them about your credentials and qualifications and establish rapport building with your client. These first few steps go a long way in building trust.

Discuss with your client if it will be daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly sessions. Set up the time and the day these sessions will be conducted and put in place a reminder for follow-up sessions either through text message, call or email. Understand that some of your online clients may not necessarily require psychological intervention; they may just be lonely and are looking to talk to someone to avoid feeling lost or miserable.

Encourage your clients to find a quiet corner in the house for the therapy sessions and ask them to use headphones to ensure as much privacy as possible. Another must-do is to ask your clients to switch off the front camera view. The reason being, seeing ourselves on the screen while talking to someone else can be quite distracting. You don’t want your client to keep seeing if they have something in their teeth or a pimple on their face. You, too, should switch off your front camera; as a professional, you may be more self-assured, but it’s always better to have all your attention on your client. 

Understand that technology isn’t infallible. Your or your client’s wi-fi signal can lose connection, and calls can get dropped, computer screens can hang and many other interruptions. So always have a backup ready. You may either use your old fashioned and trusted notepad to jot down your observations and what your client has been speaking or you may use a voice recorder. There are various mobile apps that can be used to record and transcribe the session with your client and makes it easier for case history taking. In the event that there is an interruption, you or your client don’t have to worry about what they were discussing before they were cut off.

Once your therapy session has ended, keep some time aside before taking in the next client. Use this time to update your client’s case history what was discussed in the current session, and your observations about the same. This will help you maintain clear client history. You should also encourage your client to write down their thoughts about the session and whether their concerns were acknowledged. Also, before ending the session, remind your client when the next session will take place and encourage them to write down their thoughts and concerns during this interval time.

Striking the Right Balance between Work and Personal life

Online technology allows you to be available 24×7; however, that doesn’t mean you should be. Make sure that your online therapy hours are limited to a normal working day, i.e., 6-7 hours. You have to take care of your personal wellbeing too, which means you need to keep fixed time aside for your meals, some light exercise and maybe one or two chores. You may give your personal mobile number to your clients, but make them understand the circumstances and emergencies under which they are allowed to call you beyond clinic hours. Encourage them to text their concern before calling.

During this time of the pandemic, you may get a few patients who might be dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) post getting infected with the coronavirus. Cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, which involves “emotional processing” of the trauma (in this case, contracting the virus, the recovery process and the quarantine that follows) is one of the most effective psychological treatments for PTSD. Encourage these clients to have more frequent sessions with you and always follow up on them. It would also be wise to be in touch with the client’s trusted caretaker.

In closing, you as an online therapy/virtual counsellor can be as effective as an in-person therapist. With the right balance of clinical knowledge and technological understanding, you can guide your patients in achieving good mental health. Your services during this time of global crisis are as valuable as those offered by frontline health workers. After all, mental wellbeing is just as important as physical wellbeing.