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Teletherapy: The what, why and how

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Telehealth, teletherapy, telemedicine… Words that even Siri knows now. These are more than just buzz words in the mental health profession and healthcare industry today. It’s the way of the world. And I’d like to tell you a little bit of my experience, as it has expanded in the last seven days, so you can be more comfortable continuing, or even starting, the support you need for your mental health right now.

Teletherapy is defined as a method of delivering mental health counseling and psychotherapy, using interactive technology-assisted media to facilitate prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, behavioral, relational, and addiction disorders to individuals, groups, organizations, or the general public that enables a licensee and a client(s) separated by distance to interact via synchronous video and audio transmission. (Professional & Occupational Standards, Licensed Professional Counselors Board of Examiners, Louisiana).

Basically, that is a fancy way of saying that your therapist will meet you through the phone or computer, in lieu of meeting in person.

This past week, counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists around the world have been amping up their training, revamping their operations, and securing the ways to meet you where you are, in your homes. Of course, some already practice this way, medical doctors included. Now, with "social distancing" (sorry I had to say it), Telehealth is now considered what would be called "best practices".

We have secured HIPAA compliant video conference platforms (I use SimplePractice); meaning the video methods take precautions to protect your confidentiality. We have written lengthy consent forms to explain all the benefits and risks, and how we will handle any emergencies or crises you may encounter. We have changed our offices and our homes and our electronics to ensure a comfortable experience for you.

That first meeting could be a little awkward, especially if you like the intimate experience of meeting in person, or if you’re not one who is used to seeing your own face reflected back to you on a screen (that does take some getting used to!) But here are just a few tips that I think help make it more comfortable, so you can get everything out of your time:

  • Give yourself a few minutes before your meeting time to set yourself up somewhere quiet, without distractions or interruptions. Allow yourself a few minutes to get comfortable, in front of your computer or setting up your phone. I recommend turning off any other notifications or other windows you may have open on your computer. Our multitasking society is too tempting, and you deserve the time invested only for you. And it’s OK to tell your family that you have a meeting, and request they not disturb you for an hour. I’m sure you’re all learning new ways to have boundaries right now, and this is a great way to put that into practice!

  • Find a spot with good wifi or cell service. Teletherapy is extremely convenient; no commute or wait time, getting exactly who you need when you need them. One risk to address in advance is the possibility for technical difficulty. Having good wifi or cell service eases a lot of that. No one wants to be buffered mid-cry!

  • Using headphones or earbuds is helpful (not necessary) for a couple of reasons. It helps maintain confidentiality, especially if there are other people in the house in other rooms, so they will not be able to hear the other side of the conversation. It also helps with any feedback, echo and just overall helps with sound.

  • Your counselor (or whoever you’re working with) will have sent you what’s called a consent form. This document describes how you both will handle meeting, any technical difficulties, and what will happen in case of an emergency. Everything is to ensure that you are informed and know what to expect. And these days that’s a lot of what we need to help any anxieties.

  • Don’t worry about what you look like. We don’t care. The only important thing is that you show up, stay committed to your own self care. It really helps to close your own picture screen, so you're not distracted by yourself at all. But it is helpful to keep your camera at a high-enough angle so your face can be seen, more than just your nose :-)

  • We will work through the awkward together. Kind of like making that first call for counseling… It’s one of the hardest. But once you do it, we are with you on the rest of the journey, working through it together, and that alone can ease so much of the burden. Same here. Even if that first Telehealth meeting might feel a little awkward, I think you’ll find you’ll settle into the same comfortable rhythm you had with your therapist before. And if it’s all new, will be here to work through that with you as well.

We all need that support and connection now more than ever. If you have been in therapy and have benefited, I encourage you to continue that relationship through teletherapy. If you’ve never made that call for counseling support, but find yourself now in a place of needing objective and educated support and counsel, it’s here and available to you, right where you are.

The mental health profession and services have adapted very quickly to the needs of our current times. The regulation boards of professional counselors and social workers have revised certain limitations to allow teletherapy where it was previously limited. Insurance companies have also acted quickly to be able to offer coverage for teletherapy through the insurance plans (of course each plan is different and will need to ensure what your coverage is). Basically what I’m saying is I am seeing our profession scramble to adjust to be able to continue doing what it does: offer mental and emotional support to the community at large, working hard to remove as many obstacles as possible.

This past week, I have witnessed my community of colleagues share updates and information, participate in training, obtain new methods of operating, consulting each other, exploring new ways of offering services, practicing communication, vulnerability, and connecting. It's a profession and community I am proud to be a part of.

We're here for you. Where you are.

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