Counseling Today, Features

Pandemic telehealth: What have we learned?

By Bethany Bray April 27, 2021

Last year, safety precautions and restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in early spring caused most counselors’ in-person interactions with clients, colleagues and students to come to an abrupt halt. To continue treating clients, many clinicians shifted to conducting counseling sessions through video or other digital media. For some practitioners (and clients too), it was a “like it or not” change with a steep learning curve, especially if they had not been offering any telebehavioral health services prior to the pandemic.

Now, some counselors are beginning a return to in-person sessions or a blend of in-office and virtual sessions. What did practitioners learn — about themselves and the process of counseling — while using and adapting to telebehavioral health over the past year-plus? Did counselors pick up anything that they might apply to in-person work with clients if and when they return to a traditional office setting? From Zoom fatigue to eye-opening lessons in resilience and humility, there are stories to tell.

Counseling Today recently collected insights from American Counseling Association members who have used telebehavioral health to counsel clients through some or all of the past year. Read their thoughts (in their own words) below.

 

****

Gale Brunault is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) with a private practice, Honoring Endings After Loss (HEAL), in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

When the pandemic first hit and all physical contact with the outside world came to a screeching halt, I remember asking myself, “How am I going to continue serving clients in a meaningful and productive manner?” After all, I only knew one way to conduct business, and that was face to face. 

Using telehealth for the first time and/or phone calls as a vehicle for serving clients was extremely challenging in the beginning. I no longer had the physical presence of observing the individual, which meant
I couldn’t “time” my response effectively. Between that and dealing with technical strains, my focus shifted, and I found myself distracted by issues that had nothing to do with client needs. Not only did it become a challenge for me to stay on task, but I was expending more energy than I wanted to each session.

Over time, the program I chose became more efficient and user friendly, which afforded me the chance to focus more on improving my skill set. I no longer had concerns that telehealth was diminishing the client-therapist relationship. In fact, the process was proving to be encouraging. 

Using telehealth has taught me that anything is possible. Though initially I had concerns that it may not be a favorable vehicle for working with grief and loss, telehealth proved to be a solid match for those unable or unwilling to leave home, particularly following a major loss. One of the most difficult tasks for bereaved individuals is living in a world without their loved one. Being able to stay home and receive therapy can be extremely helpful, particularly when initially all you want to do is isolate and hide. 

Many of my clients have asked to continue using telehealth. Some look forward to coming back to the office. Either way, I will be available. 

Some of what I’ve learned since using telehealth is that while the body reveals a lot about a person, so too does the face. There is a certain level of intimacy involved when you are only focused on someone’s face. I have become more in tune to a client’s eye movement, the pauses they take, how they play with their hair, the thinking process and word choice, etc. Though all of these pieces were evident during face-to-face time, having less to look at can deepen one’s observation and assessment of client patterns and behaviors.

****

Julie Hine is a licensed professional clinical counselor at a private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Having been in the field of counseling for almost 30 years, telebehavioral health has not only offered another opportunity for professional and personal growth, I also believe it has served as a catalyst to break down barriers for access to mental health services. While an entire world lives through a pandemic, common themes have risen among almost all persons. People are experiencing a gamut of emotions, often while they feel alone and alienated from loved ones and the world around them. People are feeling hopeless and helpless, riddled with feelings of nervousness. So, what happens when the entire world is feeling like this? Telebehavioral health (or telehealth) has provided an answer.

Telehealth has given access to mental health services to all persons … where [they] live. Especially in rural communities, such as those in New Mexico. Many people who live in smaller communities or on reservations do not always have access to mental health services, whether it’s because there are no counselors in their area, or they have no means of getting into an office on a regular basis. Telehealth has opened the doors for people to access services, no matter where they live, no matter if they have a car and no matter if they have gas for that car. If a person has access to a phone or computer, they can get in-person help, without actually being [there] in person. I can now provide counseling for someone who lives four hours away without even leaving my home.

Throughout all of this, communities of people have recognized the importance of positive mental health, and I have realized that self-care is a crucial gift to ourselves as counselors. If you’re a counselor providing telehealth, remember to stand up frequently, sit up straight, take breaks, rest your eyes, eat healthy snacks and, most of all, be kind to yourself. During sessions, encourage your clients to also be kind to themselves. Emotions are heightened, so remind them not to overanalyze everything, to ask for support when needed, learn to be proactive instead of reactive, and remember to laugh because nothing is permanent, and we will get through this. People are resilient.

As a clinician in the mental health community, I plan on continuing to provide telehealth services, even when returning to an office becomes a reality. That way, I can continue to help individuals, no matter the circumstances. However, I must admit, I look forward to leaving the chair in my home office and sitting in the same room, face to face, with the individuals I serve. Nothing beats human contact and smiles of hope.

****

Justin Jordan is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and certified substance abuse counselor who treats mental health issues and substance use at his private practice in Salem, Virginia. He recently completed his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Virginia Tech and will join the faculty in the mental health counseling program at University of Wisconsin-Parkside this fall.

Transitioning to telecounseling in the spring of 2020 was an easy decision based on my family’s situation. I learned very quickly that my biases had limited my ability to see the potential of telehealth software in connecting with my clients and reducing barriers to attending sessions [prior to the pandemic]. I never intended to use telehealth software for counseling and strongly believed that direct presence with clients was essential for the relationship and perceiving my clients’ needs. While I would still prefer to safely be in their presence, I now see that with the loss of presence, what is gained is a flexibility for both the client’s and counselor’s home/work lives and a chance to see clients where they are most comfortable.

In the context of COVID-19, clients felt safer meeting online, and so did I. Beyond the context of the pandemic, clients with children had [fewer] barriers [for] adapting their child care for sessions. Clients were able to meet more easily during their lunch breaks at work without commuting. And some clients who were very anxious about going into public were able to be seen in the comfort of their home. Many of these benefits will hold true once physical distancing is less of a concern, which is why I would continue telecounseling if I were not closing my practice to start a faculty position this fall.

Additionally, as a humanistic counselor, I have always tried to diminish power dynamics and have relationships based in mutuality with my clients. Telecounseling taught me that asking clients to enter my office [in person] always comes with some authority, as having to log in to sessions from my office/bedroom, often with the sounds of young children in other parts of the house, erased that [imbalance]. I had to relinquish some of the boundaries I have worked hard to create with my physical counseling space, which came with discomfort but also a beneficial humility on my part that I was in less control — of technology glitches, distractions in my home and the state of the world. I also see that my clients often feel freer expressing themselves when meeting with me from the comfort of their own couches or other parts of their home. I have consistently received feedback from my clients that there are aspects of telecounseling that have improved the process.

One of my main suggestions to counselors and students who must choose to integrate telecounseling into their practice is to have a solid plan for backup communication when technology issues occur. Realize that host platforms have issues sometimes, clients’ hardware can have problems, your hardware can have problems, and software or internet connections can crash. Also, many clients need to be coached on how to use the technology properly, and they need to have access to a usable digital device (which most clients in my private practice do).

I also think that humility, honesty and authenticity remain key counselor traits with telecounseling, which means acknowledging when the technology is creating a barrier or problem in communication.

****

Stephanie Brookins is an LPC in private practice in Columbus, Georgia, who specializes in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I was initially resistant to the idea of telehealth and would not have imagined that it might become a permanent part of my practice. I realize now that much of my negative view was shaped by the discomfort of the unknown and not having considered how the initial stress might resolve. My first experience with telehealth was several years ago with a client who had temporarily moved to another part of the state and wished to continue individual therapy with me. Issues regarding privacy and internet connection and overall discomfort with the technology led to a negative experience for [me] and the client, and I referred her to another provider. 

What I’ve found in the past year is that after the initial adjustment to technology and change, it’s relatively easy to forget that we are connecting via technology. However, that’s not always the case. Due to schools being closed, some clients have issues with child care and will have to interrupt their session to help their child with school or manage some parenting crisis. Other clients have plumbers dropping by or pets that want attention. Initially, some clients would attend telehealth sessions in bed, half awake and dressed in pajamas. This necessitated discussions about boundaries and structure that could be uncomfortable. 

There have been some unexpected benefits of telehealth. Clients with chronic health issues and periodic flare-ups would have to miss appointments in the past [because] they were unable to drive and physically get to appointments. Now we’re able to meet online and just limit the amount of time if needed. This has led to a decrease in last-minute cancellations. Some clients are able to access care now when transportation or time have presented limitations for them in the past. 

As an eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing certified therapist, I’ve had to adapt the mode of bilateral stimulation used in processing. I’ve been surprised at the work clients have still been able to do, even [with us] being physically apart and using self-tapping in place of eye movements or theratappers. 

With environmental safety precautions, I’ve been able to maintain in-person counseling as an option for clients during the past year. Some people are not comfortable with using technology, need the human connection of seeing a therapist face to face, or do not have reliable internet connection, so it’s been important to me to continue to offer that option. I imagine I’ll continue to adapt to my clients’ needs and will continue to provide both telehealth and in-person therapy.

****

Nicole Sublette is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and certified hypnotherapist who also serves as a social justice advocate, as a public speaker, and as an anti-racist educator for the state of New Hampshire.

I have learned that telehealth makes treatment more accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to engage in treatment due to scheduling or distance. I have not found too many differences between telehealth and in-person [counseling] in my practice. However, I will have increased gratitude for in-person sessions in the future. There will not be trouble with sound or video. There will not be the interruption of therapeutic flow due to technical difficulties.

Through the past year, I have learned about my own resilience and adaptability. This was momentous for me, specifically in these uncertain times. Previously, I would not qualify myself as tech savvy. Using telehealth and adapting to an online format for treatment has expanded my growing edges and helped me to also lean into my own capacities. In uncertain times, it helped me to also learn my strengths and ability to adapt. Also, techniques that I previously thought could only be done in person, such as cognitive processing therapy for PTSD, can also be done via telehealth.

I have adapted [to telebehavioral health] by asking more somatic questions of clients and discussing how the body is handling symptoms. Asking questions about what I was previously able to observe with my eyes has opened up dialogue in ways I would not have imagined. Asking increased questions can decrease the potential for avoidance for both the therapist and the client.

To my counseling colleagues, I would say conducting sessions via telehealth gets easier with time. Utilizing the same rapport techniques that one uses in person can be very helpful with telehealth, such as asking open questions and conveying authentic curiosity. Also, address the elephant in the room about any discomfort for both the therapist and the client. Share about how you can learn together. Process together any discomforts one might have with using telehealth, then work together to create a plan to ease discomfort. Humor is also a great way to ease tension.

I absolutely plan to use telehealth in the future. It is my hope to do a mix [of telehealth and in-person counseling]. Currently, I am one of the very few BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) therapists in my state. Nationally, BIPOC [constitute] about 4% of practitioners in the mental health field. Telehealth has made therapy accessible to BIPOC folx around the state. I am able to provide treatment to clients who would otherwise not be able to travel to my office due to the distance. With continued escalating events of police brutality, therapy for BIPOC has been very critical.

****

Laura Sladky is an LPC and licensed chemical dependency counselor who works as a school counselor in Dallas.

Through video/telehealth as a school counselor, I have learned that being able to quite literally see into someone’s world offers such insight into the way they organize and carry out their daily lives (pets, plants, family relations) as well as their sense of self. In short, telehealth offers the opportunity to know clients differently and inadvertently know their world beyond my office.

Throughout the past year, I have been acutely aware of my sense of justice and desire for equality. Of course, these traits are essential when developing a therapeutic alliance and conveying unconditional positive regard to a client, but on a systems and global scale, I have become painfully aware that individual problems do not exist in a vacuum, and change requires advocacy. In sum, this year was the “real life” representation of many theoretical concepts like Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Humans cannot be thoughtful, insightful and self-reflective if their basic needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met. Individuals’ autonomic nervous system becomes activated under threat and chronic stress (winter storms, unemployment, death of a loved one, fear of contracting a disease) and, consequently, higher-level thinking at the prefrontal cortex level is inaccessible. Moreover, I have learned about the inextricable link between humanity, trauma and the imperative nature of sensory integration. While the past year has been exceptionally disruptive and devastating in a variety of ways, our ability to make sense of our experiences and enact pro-social connection predicts our ability to recover — and not become further traumatized — by our experiences.

This year, with the social/political climate, I have asked more intentional questions to check in regarding media coverage/social media and how that has impacted the individuals I work with. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our brains become easily biased. Hearing a negative headline can begin a downward spiral and, before you know it, everything can seem awful. It helps me understand the level of distress knowing how much screen time people are exposed to.

In addition, helping individuals sift through what is in and out of their control (acceptance vs. change skills) and actionable steps to take to alleviate distress has been paramount. Asking questions is so important because you don’t know what you don’t know. In equal measure, not having the client in full view can impact nonverbal cues (bouncing leg, posture, etc.) but further reiterates the importance of tracking, asking questions and helping clients be aware of their bodies/ feel safe in their bodies.

It is so refreshing for those we work with to understand that we also experience undesirable situations (Zoom glitching, our pets interrupting calls, when we miss the client’s meaning) and witness how we cope in the moment. Radically open dialectical behavior therapy tells us that making mistakes is pro-social, helps us feel connected to others and eases our nervous system. For counselors who are working to connect or finding this challenging, I think briefly self-disclosing your own minor inconveniences helps build rapport with clients.

Our lives were unceremoniously upended, leaving us to confront grief and ambiguous loss daily and, in fact, it is weird even after a year. However, weird does not inherently mean bad. One of the best ways to work through the weirdness of Zoom life is to acknowledge it. In doing so, counselors can validate this experience, give it a name (awkward, different, etc.) and help facilitate the client management of these feelings.

I think offering a variety of mediums for therapy is the future of our profession, and I plan to make myself accessible through a variety of settings.

****

Michael T. Greelis* is an LPC, licensed marriage and family therapist and approved clinical supervisor in private practice in Herndon, Virginia, who has seen adolescents and adults with mood and anxiety disorders and other life challenges for 25 years.

On March 17, 2020, I made a complete transition from in-person, face-to-face [counseling] to videoconferencing for my practice — about 30 sessions per week. The change was immediate for all clients from March 18 on. Based on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director] Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statements, we either converted to virtual visits or risked our health and that of our clients if we continued in-person meetings. I saw that my clients and my colleagues reflected a high value on treatment by making this complete transition on very short notice. I learned that therapists and clients can make a major transition work with commitment and flexibility and that the work itself — face to face in person or on video — is what matters.

I immediately adapted my approach so that I focused on content rather than the medium and avoided incorrect assumptions (some cognitive behavior therapy on my part). I assumed that my clients and I would make teletherapy work and that we’d pick up on the requirements for that. What works is a focus on substance over style and letting [your counseling] style evolve as necessary.

My overall impression of videoconferencing for therapy (we call it teletherapy in Northern Virginia) is very positive. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis and emergency measures, I was a skeptic. On March 17, 2020, it was clear that I had to either migrate to teletherapy entirely or stop practicing. My ability to adapt to that change and the receptivity of my clients to make the change had a reciprocal positive effect. Every client in the transition remained in treatment, and clients who started during the virtual-only period followed a course of treatment similar to that expected during in-person times.

Post-COVID-19, I plan on a hybrid approach combining in-person with teletherapy based on client conditions and needs. This is both my preference and that expressed in very clear terms by my clients.

My advice to counseling colleagues is to focus on the work and client needs, pay extra attention to your experience of videoconferencing at the outset with each client, and ask clients how they think treatment is progressing. Also, use the special features of the medium. I’m always surprised to see that none of my colleagues use a green screen to project backgrounds more appealing than the same wall, office, etc., for every meeting. I am pushing myself to have a set of images, videos and text passages on hand [to use in sessions], if they’re beneficial. And I’m learning how to insert materials from the internet or from my files in real time during sessions.

*Greelis is advocacy chair for the Northern Virginia Licensed Professional Counselors and was involved in NVLPC’s recent survey on the use of telehealth by LPCs during the COVID-19 pandemic. See the survey results here.

****

Rob Freund is an LMHC and an assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, who also works in private practice with couples and individuals.

Prior to the pandemic, I had received training in telehealth counseling and conducted it across state lines in Florida and New York, where I was dually licensed. The format therefore wasn’t too strange for me, but the frequency of my utilizing it was more challenging. I, like many, experienced “Zoom fatigue” from using telehealth communication platforms exclusively. I learned that more so than usual, pandemic notwithstanding, I needed to separate myself from my workspace and engage in deep, deliberate self-care in order to bring my best self to the therapy space. Spending time in meditation and communication with nature became essential for me. I also realized just how much value there is in shutting off the computer and disconnecting so that I can better reconnect with my clients.

One aspect of this work that I do plan to bring to my in-person therapy is the utilization of technology in the therapy space itself — using my tablet to bring up materials for discussion, real-time sharing of resources, using digital drawing tools to portray and invite collaboration with the client. It has provided an opportunity to evolve the tools I bring into the space.

We rely so much on being in the room with clients that the absence of many shared experiences of the space — behavioral cues of seeing the full body, the opportunity to have natural eye contact patterns, smell and other sensory cues — is at times disorienting. What’s fascinating is to experience the human capacity for adaptation. I noticed myself beginning to have heightened attention to the sensory information that I did have access to — facial cues, speech patterns and nonverbal speech cues — and adjusting my work accordingly. We can be remarkably resilient, and I found clients to be the same.

I do think there are concrete things that counselors can do to facilitate adaptation to this new model of conducting therapy. Firstly, developing grounding strategies and preparatory work for before and after the session is personally important to the clinician, particularly if you are working/living in a smaller space. Secondly, I would encourage counselors to pursue training in emotional communication and recognition of nonverbal behavior. The Paul Ekman Group has excellent training resources for recognizing micro- and subtle expression displays, and books like Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions (by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen), Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (by Paul Ekman) and What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People (by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins) are excellent for expanding one’s nonverbal/emotional acumen.

Like any tool, telehealth has its pros and cons. The portability and absence of commute often benefited [me] and my clients. However, I noticed that for some, there is increased value in experiencing therapy outside of the home environment.

****

Grace Hipona is an LPC at NeuroPsych Wellness Center P.C. in Fairfax, Virginia, who holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision.

The pandemic has challenged me to view the counseling process from a different perspective. It has challenged me to be more flexible and to reassess my own coping strategies. It has tested my resiliency and ability to continue helping others while I navigate my own circumstances. The process has given me the opportunity to truly connect with clients, since we are all experiencing the pandemic at the same time. Even though we may not discuss the pandemic directly, I am aware of how we may be impacted. I also continue to evaluate and monitor my own thoughts and emotions so the client’s perspective is primarily front and center, and I help support them based on their lived experiences.

Prior to the pandemic, my overall impressions of telebehavioral health were neutral to negative. However, since March 2020, I have only used telebehavioral health to provide counseling services. Through this time, I have shifted my thoughts and feelings, and I now have a more positive outlook on telebehavioral health. I appreciate the convenience and flexibility it provides. My clients appear to have similar feelings and thoughts about telebehavioral health. I have had several mention that they likely wouldn’t have participated in counseling if this opportunity was not available.

Our practice continues to assess and reassess the role that telebehavioral health plays in counseling. We have a provider meeting at least once a month, and since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we consider all the benefits and challenges. However, we have not made any long-term decisions about the role of telebehavioral health. Being able to partner with health insurances will be a guiding factor. If health insurances continue to cover telebehavioral health, it will provide flexibility. Moving forward, I believe in our field, and across other fields, providing opportunities for either or both [in-person and telehealth] will be one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

To better connect with clients, my counseling approach has shifted over the past year to being more directive or straightforward. In other words, if I am at all uncertain about how I am interpreting a client’s thoughts or feelings, I directly ask. For example, I say, “I am not sure how you are feeling or what you are thinking right now. Do you mind explaining it to me further?” Generally, clients have been appreciative of the opportunity to clarify their perspective.

To emit levels of sympathy, empathy and understanding, I find myself amplifying my facial expressions, nonverbal cues and verbal statements in general. For this reason, I believe remote counseling can be more exhausting. Reflexively, I place more effort in self-care so I can recover and refuel for future sessions.

The use of formal assessments or evaluations has also become more integral in my counseling process. Aside from the initial intake, I found using formal brief assessments intermittently beneficial to help support my clients. I also verbally make a concerted effort to ask evaluation-related questions such as “How are you feeling today — better, worse or about the same?”

 

****

The future of telehealth

Insurance coverage has expanded and regulations regarding telebehavioral health have been relaxed in many states out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these changes remain as pandemic restrictions are loosened and many helping professionals return to in-person office settings? Find out more in our online article “The future of telehealth: Looking ahead.”

Also be sure to read this month’s “Risk Management for Counselors” column on page 8 of the print version of Counseling Today‘s May magazine, available for ACA members to download here.

****

Action steps to learn more

****

Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

****

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *