The COVID-19 pandemic brought nearly every form of in-person interaction to a screeching halt in 2020. Among the many essential services that were interrupted were professional counseling and group therapy options for the tens of millions of Americans who seek mental health treatment each year. Although telehealth services existed long before the pandemic arrived, many people—counselors and clients alike—were hesitant to fully embrace virtual therapy options because of the potential problems and challenges they posed. Luckily, those potential issues have been matched by several benefits to virtual counseling as well.
Among the many worries associated with online counseling sessions were concerns over privacy, potential technology and hardware-related hurdles, and the inability to use traditional assessment protocols that rely on body language and other physical cues.
Counselors also understand that a virtual session may not be ideal for clients who might be experiencing major issues like suicidal ideation or domestic abuse. Complicating those issues was the additional question of how counselors can maintain professional boundaries and effectively conduct sessions when clients are participating in video sessions from their bedrooms or being interrupted by kids, other family members and visitors at their homes.
While all those scenarios do sometimes arise and present certain obstacles, the pandemic forcing everyone to give telebehavioral health a chance has shown that the challenges that do exist can be overcome and that there are several unexpected benefits to consider as well.
One noteworthy benefit of virtual sessions is a client’s sense of safety, which is central to the counselor-client relationship. In the context of COVID-19, telehealth options made many clients feel safer, particularly those who were sensitive to the potential power dynamic present in walking into an office or space controlled by the counselor. In an online session, the client has the benefit of choice when it comes to the “where” as well as the “when.” For clients who are offered a choice between in-person or virtual counseling, the virtual counseling option gives counselors a chance to see clients where they are most comfortable.
Some of perceived challenges of online counseling also turned out to be unexpected benefits. For example, while there were practical concerns over at-home interruptions by family members, the ability to provide counseling to parents without childcare being a barrier to accessing those services was a huge upside. Scheduling and attending an hour counseling session becomes considerably easier to do when you don’t have to worry about finding someone to care for your kids during your appointment and commute time.
Virtual counseling also removes barriers to care for people with chronic health issues, people who are anxious when going out in public, and people who lack access to reliable transportation. All of this provides a tremendous amount of personalization and flexibility for clients while also helping counselors get to know and understand their clients while also minimizing professional frustrations like last-minute appointment cancellations.
Now that telehealth services have been embraced and implemented on a large scale for a sustained period of time, mental health professionals are far more willing to find ways to keep those options available for the people who need them. Whether you’re someone who likes the idea of meeting with a counselor in person or someone who prefers the flexibility and control afforded by meeting virtually, the benefit of having that choice available to you is something we can all appreciate.