I awake, shower, dress and head into the office. I will see my first client of the day at 9 a.m., and I have arrived at my desk a half-hour early. I go to the office much earlier these days.
I start to ready myself and my space for work, spraying sage and lighting a palo santo stick to clear and bring in positive energy. I turn on my music, a surrogate noise diffuser, then close my eyes. Sitting in my high-back chair, I ask the universe again today to equip my mind, ears, eyes and words to support my clients in their healing journeys.
This is my new normal, but it is not so normal for me because my clinical office is now in my home. This is not a space that I originally set up to do private practice. Rather, it was a den I had designed for family escapism, reading, relaxing and spiritual grounding.
As I sit contemplating my schedule of clients for the day, I turn my attention to the bookshelves in the room. Among the different clusters of books sits a bobblehead doll of Jack Sparrow, a figurine of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, angel ornaments and angel sculptures. Also on the shelves, scattered and occupying space, are grounding rocks. Some are face-up so that I can see a word stamped on them from my vantage point: peace, calm, harmony, laughter.
I reflect on my past in-person sessions. At the start of sessions or during sessions, I would invite clients to select a grounding rock, hold it in their hands and set an affirmation, either verbally or silently, in harmony with the word on the rock. Or I would ask an anxious client to select a rock, and then I would guide them in a tactile grounding exercise. Most of my established clients know about the availability of the rocks — when they need to use them and how they will choose to use them. Among the comments I have heard from clients using a rock in session: “This gives me focus”; “It is comforting”; “I feel less anxious.”
On the table where the computer sits, there are writing pads I would previously give to clients to take home for journaling or suggest as a memory tool for those having trouble with remembering. In a corner of the sofa that sits along the far back wall of the den are several squeeze balls, which are great devices for releasing anxiety in session. In an off-white 5-by-6-inch box, sitting on the middle shelf of my computer workstation, are my business cards. These items all seem almost meaningless now because they are things I once provided for clients during in-person sessions.
Teletherapy vs. in-person
The reason that I now work completely from home, providing therapeutic services for clients by way of video and voice calling, is because I work with a population that is at higher risk for severe illnesses. This has been the protocol for many behavioral health workers for many months now. The current environmental situation dictates this change, and my obedience to moral and ethical obligations to clients guides me to protect and minimize harm.
I have found that teletherapy, telecounseling, telemental health and distance counseling — among other descriptives used to define the provision of remote mental health psychotherapy — takes a slightly different way of working with clients than does providing in-person sessions. I liken the two approaches to watching a movie versus reading a book of the same title.
An in-person therapy session, like watching a movie, involves the art of active listening. I am paying attention to what the client is saying while also focusing on their body language and behavior. The body language and nonverbal gestures can be picked up readily in in-person sessions.
On the other hand, I compare teletherapy with the way that written words in a book detail a story and convey information; it requires enhanced attentiveness to detail to see the full picture. I must use sharper observation to recognize the subtle messages of facial gestures and voice tonetics in teletherapy sessions.
Five areas of focus
Here are five areas of focus that have helped me make clients feel more comfortable and safer with the teletherapy process.
1) Distance counseling technology: Verification of a client’s identity and location are important. These things should be established before starting the first session and at the beginning of each session thereafter. Know that the person you are providing counseling service to is really who they claim to be and where they reside. In addition, know the definitions for the scope of practice and regulations for professional practice in both your state and the state in which your client resides because these items can differ between state licensure boards.
Ensure that the platform you are using for your teletherapy session is secure. Use applications that have an end-to-end (two-way) encryption capability. There are several good ones out there, but do your research.
Likewise, be careful not to use text messaging and email applications that are not compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Outside of the use of HIPAA-compliant text messaging applications, HIPAA does allow for texting clients on the condition that they have been informed of the risk of unauthorized disclosure and consented to communicate by way of text messaging. Both communication of the risks and consent from the client need to be documented.
Personally, I limit text messaging to clients to scheduling or confirming appointments. These text messages hold no personal client information, not even in the salutation. With email messaging, I never assume that the client has an internal email network with firewall protection. For this reason, all email correspondence that I send is by way of a secure messaging application.
2) Informed consent and confidentiality: In conveying aspects of the teletherapy process, counselors need to give clients a clear understanding of the therapy they are entering into and ensure that they feel comfortable and safe with the process. In this way, clients can make a choice to engage in therapy. The “consent for treatment” form should state the following at minimum:
- Platform from which the counseling will be delivered (Zoom, Google, etc.)
- Therapeutic modality that will be used (cognitive behavior therapy, solution-focused brief therapy, etc.)
- Risks, benefits, confidentiality and boundaries involved in engaging in teletherapy, plus an acknowledgment that although measures will be taken to ensure the confidentiality of the session, there are no guarantees
- Possibility of technology failure and alternate methods of service delivery
- Location and setting of the practitioner, along with the practitioner’s credentialing and contact information
I have found it helpful before beginning sessions to show clients the confidential space in which I am working. I pan the monitor camera around the room so they can see the space I’m in is safe and free of distraction. Similarly, I encourage clients to use a quiet, calm space for their sessions when possible. It also helps for practitioners to be consistent with the counseling space location and background that clients see from session to session on their monitor screens. This allows clients to become comfortable with the predictability.
3) Technology slip-ups and client crises: Slip-ups inevitably happen, so it is wise to prepare as best you can before a session. First and foremost, test your video connection capability so that issues do not cause session delays. Unfortunately, some things cannot be anticipated, such as audio or visual problems in session. I have found it beneficial to address difficulties and concerns of this nature with clients in initial sessions and to plan together a backup alternative, such as having a phone session.
Just as with technology slip-ups, crisis situations can occur. It is important when conducting the initial client assessment that potential crisis situations for the client are discussed and a crisis plan is developed, documented and put in place. I ask an array of questions in considering the client’s risk for a crisis. As part of the crisis plan, it is important to have the client’s emergency contact numbers, local and national emergency crisis numbers, and language stating that the police could be called to provide a welfare check if the client’s safety is a concern.
A crisis can sometimes occur for clients at the end of an especially difficult teletherapy session. In these instances, I have used various techniques, such as relaxed breathing, having the person hold something in their hand and mindfully describe it, and the use of grounding exercises to help clients orient back to space, time and place.
4) Practical tips: At times, I have found myself focused on the computer’s video camera, checking my eye alignment so that I do not appear to be looking downward or too high upward. As a result, my awareness of the subtle movements and body language of the client has been obscured. Likewise, although I engage in active listening, I sometimes miss the tonetic detail of information being provided.
Some of the techniques I find most useful in keeping me attuned with the client in the therapeutic process draw on the principles of mindfulness practice. Having a moment-by-moment awareness of what is unfolding visually and tonetically allows me to help clients feel supported and understood.
When I mindfully remind myself to sit back from the screen, I see a wider area. I can better catch the slight facial expressions and eye gestures of the client and use these observations to reflect on helping the client gain awareness of the messages they are conveying. These days, I pay additional attention to noticing, understanding and noting what the client’s voice nuances, tempo, pitch and inflection are conveying. These hold equal importance with visual focus in creating a therapeutic alliance with the client.
5) Best self forward: Putting your best self forward begins with self-care. A great part of self-care is maintaining good boundaries, both inside and outside of client sessions. This includes establishing a clear line of demarcation between work time and personal time and creating a space of time between each scheduled client so that you are able to replenish your mind and body.
I like to replenish my mind through meditation and my body through movement. Meditation helps me create inner calmness and renews my focus. Fitting short exercise into my workday, such as a short cardio workout, walking the dog, and resistance-band exercise, helps me to reenergize. I also find great mental fortification in connecting with clinical colleagues with whom I can share challenges, problem-solve and get overall support.
In facing the changing times of our new normal, it is useful to know that we can move forward by being proactive in our thinking, preparation and approach. The more equipped we are, the fewer obstructions we will face. The fewer obstructions we face, the better we can be of service to our clients, upholding nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice and respect for the autonomy of the person.
For more on the ins and outs of telebehavioral health, see the American Counseling Association’s resource page for counselors: counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/trauma-disaster/telehealth-information-and-counselors-in-health-care
Andrea Chandler is a licensed counselor with more than 12 years of practice. It is her passion and privilege to serve individuals through counseling and advocacy efforts. Contact her at Achandler123@gmail.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.