Therapy looks a little different these days.
There’s still the couch to curl up on, and a box of tissues at the ready. But something’s missing. Oh yes, an in-the-flesh therapist. But never fear, there they are — only now they’re screen-bound.
Online therapy is growing, in no small part due to our new way of being in the world, but even before everything went haywire, it was gaining traction.
“A lot of the user base that’s interested are people who have never set foot in a therapist’s office,” says Haesue Jo, a licensed therapist and clinical support lead at BetterHelp, an online counseling and therapy service that provides web-based, phone and text interaction. “This is a way for people to stick their toe in the water if they’ve been fearful of talking to a therapist before.”
BetterHelp has been around for six years , though teletherapy has been available for longer than that. Jo says her service is growing exponentially every year.
Talkspace, another online therapy platform that launched in 2012, has seen the number of people seeking therapy from its service up more than 65 percent since mid-February, according to director of clinical content and therapist Amy Cirbus.
“There’s also a large increase in applications coming in from counselors to be part of the network,” says Jo. “A lot has to do with counselors and therapists no longer having offices and feeling safe meeting face-to-face.”
Debby Patz is one of those psychologists now holding sessions with clients online. Also a certified addiction counselor, Patz splits her time between her own private practice and working with students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Gallogly Recreation and Wellness Center.
Going online after the shelter-at-home order went into effect wasn’t something she’d ever wanted to do, but the times have changed many of our best-laid plans. Even though it’s only been a few weeks, it’s going “surprisingly OK,” she says. One of her previous clients has even been able to return to therapy, after giving up in-person sessions due to a sick child and chaotic schedule.
“I’ve been surprised, especially with college students,” says Patz. “Some of them have been more vulnerable than they were with me in person. I think it’s the distance. It reminds me of hearing that sometimes the best heart-to-heart conversations with parents and their children is in the car, where they can’t look at each other.”
Other services online
The pandemic also has pushed other organizations that serve niche populations onto online platforms. Maria Berger is a bilingual therapist and the assistant executive director for Special Kids Special Families, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. She recently started a 90-day program to offer telehealth counseling free to those 60 and older so they don’t have to risk leaving their home.
Free sessions are available through the end of July for those who don’t have insurance or have insurance that doesn’t cover behavioral health, regardless of income.
“We want to target as many seniors as we can, to see how they’re doing,” says Berger. “That community can feel isolated and depressed. My hope is we can expand our senior clients. We’re known for serving children and families, but not so much seniors.”
The Resource Exchange, an organization that helps people of all ages receive the services they need, has increased its telehealth offerings. Julie Taylor, a developmental interventionist, works with families with babies and kids from birth to 3 who have developmental delays or autism. Usually she’s in the client’s home with them, teaching the family how to work on social skills, communication, fine and gross motor skills or whatever the child is struggling with. Doing it online now comes with a perk.
“It helps families to be more actively involved because they don’t have a therapist to jump in and do it,” says Taylor. “Some families felt discomfort in the beginning, but each week we see them build up their own skills more and more. It gets them to be more actively involved and gets them out of their comfort zones.”
Pros and cons
Besides not having to wear pants, there are obvious logistical benefits to heading online, such as zero commute time and the greater ease of fitting an hour of telehealth into your schedule. And if screen time doesn’t work in the moment, there’s always messaging and phone calls.
Going online opens more doors, especially in finding a therapist who’s accepting new clients and has insurance and a cost structure that works for you. You can find therapists across your state, a handy aspect for those living in rural areas, where there might only be one or two therapists. If they attend your church or live next door to you, for example, those can be insurmountable personal conflicts.
And then there’s the continued stigma of seeking mental help.
“In many communities people don’t want to be seen going into a therapist’s office,” says Jo. “People are still under the assumption you’re weak or crazy in some way. Online is discreet.”
Benefits aside, there’s still much about an in-person session that can’t be replaced online.
“What’s missing is a lot of the nuance,” says Patz. “I can only see their head or from their chest up. I don’t know if you’re wildly tapping your foot or drumming your fingers or shifting uneasily. There’s a lot of intuitive work you do in person. If I’m sensing you are getting worked up or getting anxious, I can use my energy and tone of my voice and body postures to bring you down.”
Technology can also be a challenge. For Berger’s senior population, it’s touch and go. She tries to talk them through the process of connecting to an online platform, but sometimes that doesn’t work out.
“To help them alleviate that anxiety, and if it doesn’t work out, we can do our conversation by phone,” she says. “We can try again. Based on my experience, a lot don’t have phones, laptops or computers, so we just do our regular phone call.”
The ultimate question is this: Is it better to get help in a perhaps limited, flawed environment, or no help at all?
“You’re in the room with me or you don’t get these services at all,” says Jo.
“Communication between me and clients online is surprising. People can make good progress. It can’t replace in-person service, but it’s a good option to consider.”Contact the writer: 636-0270