Tag Archives: Technology

Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media

By Bethany Bray September 24, 2020

When a user opens Facebook, Twitter or many other social media platforms, there is a slight delay before an icon illuminates to indicate that the person has a notification, signaling that someone has liked or interacted with one of the user’s posts.

That moment of delay is purposely designed into social media apps to create an alluring cycle of anticipation and reward, according to Amanda L. Giordano, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) whose main area of research is behavioral addictions, including addictions to technology and social media. “Social media is made to be irresistible. It taps into the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s designed to keep you on it as long as it can,” says Giordano, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “They operate from the variable ratio reinforcement scenario. That’s the most powerful reinforcement schedule there is. [Social media’s draw] is like gambling, knowing that there could be a big payout at any time, so you keep playing. Users know that they’re going to get some kind of reward, but they don’t know when it’s coming. There is a strong dopamine response [to that].”

That drive to seek the rewards that are triggered by social media can lead to compulsive and problematic use. But by providing psychoeducation about the ways that social media platforms are designed to affect neural pathways, counselors can help clients achieve a healthy balance with their social media use, says Giordano, a member of the American Counseling Association. This is especially true with child and adolescent clients, who are digital natives who have been exposed to technology all of their lives but may not yet possess the maturity to recognize the control that social media can exert over them, she adds.

Providing psychoeducation is just one of many ways that counselors can assist clients in flipping their perspectives and using social media to get what they want out of the experience rather than vice versa. Taking simple actions such as changing a smartphone’s color scheme to gray scale can render Facebook’s notification icon — a red bell — less powerful, Giordano notes.

“By becoming aware of all of that, and understanding how social media is tapping into some of these more primitive brain responses, clients can be empowered by the knowledge and take more control over their use,” she says.

Part of life

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use at least one social media site “to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” Pew found that those ages 18-29 had the highest usage at 90%, followed by 30- to 49-year-olds at 82%, 50- to 64-year-olds at 69%, and those 65 and older at 40%.

Pew’s data collection in early 2019 found that more than half of adults who used Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat visited those sites at least once per day. Facebook was pinpointed as the most popular social media site, with 69% of adults using the social networking platform. In addition, 74% of Facebook users visited the site daily.

These statistics point to a hard-to-ignore conclusion: Social media is a very real part of the fabric of people’s lives today. Regardless of counselors’ personal feelings about social media — whether they view its impact and influence as a net positive or a net negative — they must do their best to understand it and the role it plays in their clients’ lives.

Don’t discount the positives

Social media use can factor into any number of presenting issues and challenges that clients bring to counseling, from relationship friction discussed in couples counseling to self-esteem or body image issues in clients who struggle with perfectionism, eating disorders, social anxiety or other conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer to this issue, as many people are quarantined or otherwise spending more time at home, feeling isolated and turning to social media to find connection or quell boredom.

As it relates to their clients’ lives, professional counselors may first think of the potential negative implications of social media use. However, the counselors interviewed for this article emphasize that there are both good and bad aspects of social media use. And for many people, the pluses can far outweigh the minuses.

“It’s an area that many counselors shy away from. … A lot of times, it feels like folks demonize social media. There are a lot of ways to keep from using it in an unhealthy way and to use it to your benefit,” says Kertesha B. Riley, a career coach at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration, where she is working on a doctorate in counselor education. “There are hundreds and thousands of examples where social media is not a good thing at all, but I don’t let that outweigh the good that can come from it.”

Riley is active on Twitter, using the platform to stay up to date professionally, follow leaders in the field and forge connections. In the realm of career counseling, social media sites such as LinkedIn can play an integral role in clients’ job searches, Riley says, adding that she often talks with her clients about leveraging social media to enhance their career development. Creating posts with hashtags such as #jobs and #hireme can catch the attention of potential employers, while clients can follow hashtags within their own industries to stay abreast of trends or connect with colleagues.

“It can help [clients] to stay in the know and connect with people, but also further their career goals in a way that propels them a lot quicker than without [using social media],” says Riley, a member of ACA. “For networking, follow leaders and movers and shakers in your industry, and see who they follow. See what gets you noticed on this platform, and in your field.”

Social media can also serve as a tool to find and connect with professionals with whom clients relate, Riley notes. “Especially for those who are having feelings of doubt or mention that they’re not seeing people who look like them in the field, they can follow people they admire and identify with.”

As a Black doctoral student, this is the case for Riley. Although she doesn’t have many Black colleagues at her university, she follows and interacts with many Black doctoral students and professors via social media.

ACA member Jordan Elliott saw how social media could play a beneficial role in her work as a residential counselor at a treatment facility for women with substance use disorders. Many of the women at the facility had extensive trauma histories. Elliott, an LPC intern and licensed chemical dependency counselor in San Antonio, often worked with clients to create social media plans for after they were discharged. In many cases, this included joining social media groups and following pages with others in recovery.

These connections helped the women support each other and keep moving forward in their recovery after discharge, Elliott says. If a friend began to relapse, they would often recognize the signs in the person’s social media posts — or lack of posts — and reach out to check on one another.

“They often found intense connections with each other once in treatment. They were already drawn to connect with each other, and they wanted to continue that after they were discharged,” recalls Elliott, a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “This was huge for them, to stay in contact with one another through social media. … Social media has such a healing capability because it helps people connect and stay connected with each other.”

“When working with clients who have experienced extreme disconnection, via addiction, loss and grief, trauma or other ways, think of the power [social media] can have to bring people together and find connection,” Elliott continues. “In counseling, the relationship is key — we are relational creatures and drawn to connect. Think of how social media can be a connective intervention for clients.”

Getting up to speed

Counselors who aren’t familiar or comfortable with social media should think of it as “just one more way to connect with clients,” Elliott says.

“It’s our responsibility to keep up with it and how it is changing. It can be difficult to keep up with everything, but take that initiative to educate yourself on these platforms as much as you can,” Elliott urges. “For counselors who don’t feel as comfortable with technology, think of it as a creative intervention [to reach clients], and it might not be as intimidating.”

Giordano agrees, noting that counselors have a duty to bring themselves up to speed on social media to better help their clients. Having even a basic knowledge of the different platforms and their varying attributes will help practitioners ask the right questions to connect with clients,
she says.

“The best way is to ask clients, ‘What does it [a particular social media platform] do for you? Escape boredom? Find identity? Connect with peers?’ It’s really important to have a nonjudgmental view of it because, in large part, people have a good experience and find benefits,” Giordano says.

Counselors who want to learn more about social media can begin by doing an internet search on the different platforms and the terms they hear clients using in session. In some cases, counselors might want to consider creating a profile themselves so that they can log in and explore a platform further. Erin Mason, an LPC and assistant professor at Georgia State University, notes that some of the school counselors she knows have created TikTok accounts to better understand the video-sharing platform that is particularly popular among teens and young adults.

Mason, an ACA member, has maintained an active presence on Twitter, professionally, for nine years. She says it helps her stay up to date on trends and developments in the field of school counseling.

Riley recommends that counselors “stay open-minded and talk with someone in your personal or professional life who does use social media. Talk with your clients. Ask what draws them to it and what are some challenges that they’ve encountered. Hearing some firsthand perspective can help pull the wall down against social media,” she says. “[Social media] is a living, breathing, evolving entity, and because of that, there’s a place for everyone if you choose to look for it.

“If a client really loves TikTok, have them walk you through it: What do they like about it? What makes a good video [post]? What do they engage with the most? This helps open them up and tells you a lot about why and how they engage. … It gives you a better idea about their motivation, their mindset and their personality based on the type of platform and how they engage [with it].”

When it becomes a problem

There are no uniform diagnostic criteria for social media addiction, either in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or through the World Health Organization or other agencies, Giordano notes. However, she says, it is estimated that between 5% and 10% of adults have a “problematic relationship” with social media — a prevalence that is comparable with most other behavioral addictions.

“What we know is that it’s prevalent among adolescents, adults and young adults across the globe,” Giordano says. “In the United States, researchers have found that almost 10% of undergrads have social media dependence.”

With that in mind, Giordano urges counselor clinicians to complete thorough assessments of clients’ relationships with social media. The frequency and amount of time they spend on the platforms are good places to start, but there are many more nuanced indicators to consider. Giordano recommends that practitioners check in with all adolescent and adult clients about their motives for engaging with social media, their compulsivity levels, how social media use affects their moods and the emotions that they associate with it. For example, does it disrupt their sleep cycles? Do they experience envy, a lack of belonging or self-loathing?

“When the client is not on social media, do they have an urge to check it? Are they craving it? Do they have FOMO [fear of missing out]? Is it creating anxiety when they’re not on it?” asks Giordano, co-author of an upcoming article on cyberbullying and adolescent social media use that will appear in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling.

Practitioners should note that using social media while driving is a red flag that can indicate social media addiction, Giordano adds. There is also a documented link between social media use and nonsuicidal self-injury — so much so that many of the major platforms have created guidelines for banning photos and posts that glorify self-injury, she says.

Overall, people with poor regulation skills are at higher risk for social media addiction, Giordano says, whereas those who have healthy regulation skills are better able to self-regulate their emotions rather than relying on social media to manage their moods. Counselors should listen for the hallmarks of addiction in the ways that clients describe their social media use, she says. Among the possible warning signs are:

  • When clients’ social media use becomes compulsive and they find themselves checking it when they didn’t plan to
  • When clients have a loss of control, staying on social media longer than they intended
  • When clients continue to engage in the behavior even after experiencing negative consequences such as cyberbullying, family or relational conflict over their social media use, or disruptive sleep patterns

Practitioners can use several assessment tools and questionnaires to screen clients for social media addiction, Giordano notes. More information on these tools can be found in “Investigating psychometric properties of social media addiction measures among adolescents,” an article that Giordano co-wrote with Joshua C. Watson and Elizabeth A. Prosek for the October issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

Elliott emphasizes the importance of assessing each client individually because what a healthy relationship with social media looks like will differ for each person. “One client could say that they only use social media six hours per day — but they used to use it for 12. Shift your perspective to meet them where they’re at with their social media use, and don’t pathologize it. … Don’t have a set idea of what it would or should look like, thinking you know what’s best for them. Let them be the judge of how they interact with these platforms instead of us placing our perceptions on them,” says Elliott, who co-presented a session with Stacy Speedlin titled “Healing the Brave New World: Resolving Trauma Issues for Millennials Using Social Media” (available at aca.digitellinc.com/aca/sessions/18482/view) at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans.

For Riley, a general indicator that a client has an unhealthy relationship with social media is when its use begins to interfere with the person’s daily life and functioning. If clients talk about choosing activities because they might result in posts or photos that will garner likes or attention on social media, that should prompt further questioning from the counselor, she says.

“It’s not as simple as the amount of time you spend on [social media]. That can be an indicator, but not necessarily. … Right now, with everyone at home [because of COVID-19], use will be higher,” Riley says. “If it’s impacting the time you [the client] are spending on self-care, or time with loved ones, being in nature or in your community, and you’re finding it’s taking time away from the things you want to do, then it might be approaching an unhealthy relationship. … Asking [clients] about their time spent on social media is a way to start the conversation. But from there, flesh out what is behind that. What is compelling them to spend so much time on social media?”

Cold turkey isn’t the answer

A recommendation that clients delete their social media accounts or discontinue their use altogether may be appropriate for the small percentage of individuals who truly struggle with social media addiction, Giordano says, but it might not be helpful — or even possible — for many other clients.

“There are a lot of benefits to social media, from building relationships and social connectivity to advocacy,” Giordano says. “The answer is not to stop using social media. The answer is for clients to take more control of their social media use so they’re not just going along with whatever impulses they have but [instead] being intentional.”

Counselor clinicians should also keep in mind that social media may be part of a client’s livelihood, adds Mason, so it would not be feasible for the person to quit the platforms entirely.

The same holds true in the realm of addictions recovery, notes Elliott, who counsels mostly adult clients at UTSA’s Sarabia Family Counseling Center, which offers free community services. Deleting one’s accounts would mean severing contact with those who support them during recovery. Social media “is often their lifeline to each other,” she says. “Say they relapse. It’s so important to have that network that they can plug back into. If they’ve deleted all their accounts, how are they going to do that?”

“I think the best way to help someone learn to have a healthy relationship with social media is [for them] to use it,” agrees Riley. “There can be instances where it can be helpful for clients to step back for a time, but for me it’s important to help them engage with it in a healthy way, and that’s not as easy if you go cold turkey.”

“I have a love-hate relationship with this idea, but social media is ingrained in our society,” Riley continues. “Not using it is lessening your engagement with the world, especially for those in rural or isolated areas. It’s a way to see the world without leaving your ZIP code and engage and learn from those who aren’t around you.”

Getting to the why

Researchers from Harvard University, in a November 2019 study published in Health Education & Behavior, found that routine use of social media could have positive health outcomes on social well-being, mental health and self-rated health. At the same time, researchers found that having an emotional connection to social media use could generate negative health outcomes, such as increased anxiety, depression, loneliness and FOMO.

Having a healthy relationship with social media involves understanding why one uses the platforms, and counselors can play a key role in helping clients explore that perspective. It’s most important for clients to decide on and create their own goals rather than counselors making suggestions, Giordano stresses.

“They probably already have people in their life telling them that they spend too much time on social media, so that’s not helpful to say. Instead, help them find their own motives for making change. From there, come from a nonjudgmental stance [and] use the client’s own motivation for making change rather than just imposing rules,” she says.

Giordano finds motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral techniques helpful when engaging in this work with clients, but she says that counselors can adapt whatever framework they prefer to address this issue.

Practitioners can start by helping clients “give voice” to the pros and cons of their social media use. Giordano suggests asking clients in session why they use it, what they like about it and what they wish they could get out of it.

Giordano notes that research studies on the function of social media in people’s lives have pinpointed that people turn to it to meet three main needs:

  • The need to belong
  • The need for self-presentation
  • The need for emotion regulation or mood modification

She suggests that practitioners ask clients about their thoughts and beliefs prior to using social media, during social media use and after social media use. Then, listen for language that could indicate deeper issues or maladaptive core beliefs that might be motivating clients’ behavior. For example, a client who struggles with self-esteem may mention feeling inadequate or self-critical if they don’t post a witty response to a friend’s post.

Elliott emphasizes that the client should be the driver in this process. “I’m a huge advocate for meeting clients where they’re at. If they’re presenting with negative side effects of social media or an unhealthy relationship with it, ask them about their relationship, what is its role in their life and how is it affecting them. Enhance that conversation instead of challenging it head-on. [If you say], ‘It sounds like you’re addicted to social media,’ that’s not going to help. Fall back on motivational interviewing techniques to have them evaluate what it is giving to them versus taking from them.

“Social media is good because you get to choose who you’re connected to. There’s so much freedom. A counselor can help with flipping that perspective: [Clients] have control of who they’re friends with and what they might see in their feed.”

Perspective shift

Counselors can help clients move toward intentionality and control over their social media use. A good way to start this process is to prompt clients to talk about what social media gives them and what it takes from them — and how or whether they’d like to change those benchmarks, Elliott says.

Elliott recalls one client with whom she worked at the residential treatment center in San Antonio. Social media was a prevalent part of the woman’s life, and she had more than 1,000 “friends” on Facebook.

Clients were not allowed to have cellphones while they were in recovery treatment. As this particular client neared discharge, Elliott allowed her to turn on her phone — for the first time in two months — as part of creating a social media plan in a session.

Elliott sat with the client as she went through her social media contact lists, blocking, unfollowing and severing ties with people who had previously been part of her life of substance abuse. Many of them had sent her messages, knowing full well she was in a recovery program, to ask her to contact them once she was out.

“If she had looked at those messages at the beginning of her treatment, she might not have stayed. There were a lot of unhealthy people in her life,” Elliott says. “It was a really important exercise to do. In hindsight, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we didn’t address this together. Would she have left treatment, turned on her phone and been bombarded with all these messages?”

Instead, in session, Elliott and the client talked about setting boundaries with social media and processed each friend decision together. They talked about why she wanted to block some people and unfollow yet remain connected with others — those to whom she could be a help, Elliott recalls.

The client also was able to add women from the treatment program to her social media accounts. This greatly broadened her pool of friends, adding people of different ages and backgrounds. The process represented “a complete reframe” for the woman as she exerted control over her social media and decided what role she wanted it to play in her life and her healing moving forward, Elliott says.

This process was often part of creating social media plans with clients at the facility, Elliott says. She served as a support as clients deleted or began to follow accounts, set boundaries and rethought their social media use.

For example, if a client followed a page that glorified drug use, such as the account of an artist or musician, Elliott and the client would process that choice together. “I would talk it through with them: ‘How will it affect you to see that? If so, what are you going to do about it?’ We would evaluate which of these things [the people and pages the client followed] are worth it to them and which things aren’t, as well as knowing their triggers and making a plan for if they were triggered by social media. For example, ‘What if you go on to social media and find that someone has passed away [from an overdose]?’ I would talk all of that through with clients.”

Setting boundaries

Exerting control over one’s relationship with social media often involves setting boundaries and limits. Counselor clinicians can support clients in this process by helping them create a social media plan in counseling sessions. Giordano says this can be particularly helpful for adolescent clients, who may benefit from writing down parameters to which they can refer back outside of sessions.

Social media plans should delineate specific times that clients do not want to use social media, such as during mealtimes, while driving, right after waking up in the mornings or within two hours of going to bed at night, says Giordano, who is writing a book on behavioral addictions that is slated to be published next year. Part of a client’s social media plan might include deciding not to engage in phubbing, a term for when people are glued to their smartphones while gathered together with others — in essence, snubbing people in favor of their phone.

Offering psychoeducation about the triggering aspects of social media can also be helpful during this process, Giordano says. For example, discussing the brain’s dopamine response to a phone’s notification alerts might lead clients to deactivate the notifications for their social media apps. Similarly, explaining how the blue light emitted from digital screens can disrupt sleep cycles might prompt some clients to set a goal of putting their phones in another room when they sleep, thus removing the temptation to check it while in bed.

There are also numerous apps and programs available that limit the amount of time a user can spend on a particular website, including social media. Giordano recommends an app called Offtime, whereas Mason uses Freedom, which is available both as an app and a Chrome plugin. In both cases, the user selects the amount of time they’d like to allow themselves to use certain sites each day, or they have the option to block sites entirely.

“One of the things that makes social media so different from reading a book or watching a movie is that a book and a movie have a set end. With social media, you can scroll without end, so you have to be intentional,” Giordano says. “Clients and counselors can decide [as part of making a social media plan] to only use social media when the results are positive and to do emotional check-ins on how using social media is making them feel.”

 

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Social media and youth: Taking a proactive role as a counselor

For counselors who work with young clients or in school settings, part of staying up to date with social media includes becoming knowledgeable about cyberbullying, says Erin Mason, an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

Cyberbullying, or harassment via digital means, including through social media, is a complex topic. It can take place both during and outside of the school day and both on and outside of school property. In school settings, the responsibilities of counselors and administrators regarding cyberbullying can vary significantly from school to school, as can the consequences imposed on students, notes Mason, who was previously a school counselor.

Mason recommends that counselors visit Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) to stay updated on the latest trends in social media and its use among children and adolescents. The site’s many resources include detailed descriptions and ratings of TV shows, movies, apps, video games and other media for parents and educators.

Mason emphasizes that counselors need to take a proactive role — rather than a punitive one — when it comes to cyberbullying. Efforts should go toward fostering a healthy school culture that includes a focus on positive social-emotional behavior, she says.

“Counselors need to be really vigilant about what’s trending at their schools. Sometimes the trends start in schools and then filter out and become problems in lots of places [in the community],” Mason says. “This is where partnerships are really important — partnering with other school staff, local police and families, and making sure everyone’s on the same page with what’s happening.”

In a trend that was brought to Mason’s attention by one of her graduate students, a problem arose at a school where students were exchanging and sharing messages via Google Docs. The students would type a message and change the font color to white so that any parent or school staff person who intercepted the document would just see a blank page. This method was a way to conceal cyberbullying among students, Mason says.

“Kids figure out the workarounds, ways to trick the system or at least trick the adults,” Mason says. “It’s a lot for educators to stay on top of, and it’s a lot for families to stay on top of.”

On the flip side of the coin, Mason says she has seen social media used as a positive tool in schools. One of her colleagues was running a small group for female students in high school that was focused on empowerment, confidence and positive body image. She created a Pinterest board, and the teens were able to “pin” inspiring quotes and positive messages to share with one another. This activity bolstered the group’s cohesion, Mason says. The young women would add to the board outside of sessions, and the group would discuss the posts when they met in person.

“Some of this comes down to generational differences, and I wonder if over time we will see more of a shift in understanding how social media and these kinds of tools can be helpful, because they are so integrated in people’s lives,” Mason says. “Over time, the negatives won’t diminish, but the advantages will begin to outweigh the negatives, and counselors have a role to play in that — with families and in school settings. We need to be thinking about how social media can contribute positively to school environments.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA Code of Ethics (counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics)

  • Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology and Social Media

Continuing education

 

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

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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.

Voice of Experience: The miracle of 28 days

By Gregory K. Moffatt September 17, 2020

When I began my life as a mental health worker well over 30 years ago, the words “managed care” weren’t even a blip on the radar. Almost everyone had personal insurance. People who had an HMO were mostly factory workers, and to have an HMO or a PPO was generally not regarded as a good thing. Otherwise, you could go to whatever doctor you wanted, there were no “referrals,” and both physicians and counselors had immense latitude in the first few weeks of treatment.

In those days, there was a joke in our profession that went something like this: “How long does it take to treat [fill in the blank with any issue]?”

The answer: “Twenty-eight days.”

The reason for 28 days is that insurance companies would reimburse for up to 28 days of treatment — even in-patient care — without question. After that, lots of other documentation was required. So, miraculously, in-patient care was often — you guessed it — 28 days.

Of course, no responsible therapist planned their treatments based on that 28-day ceiling, but we had tons of latitude on treatment plans. But the late 1980s brought us major changes in health care. Managed care (HMOs and PPOs) changed the way we did business. I was too new in the field to have an opinion at that time, but I remember the outrage among my supervisors and other veteran counselors.

In retrospect, the change in how insurance worked actually helped us (forced us?) to become better in how we provided services. For example, brief solution-focused therapy, which was something that didn’t exist when I was a graduate student, is a result of this change.

You may be asking yourself whether there is a point to this interesting trip down memory lane. Well, I think we may be seeing something just like I described above happening right now.

Americans are innovative. I am confident that the coronavirus pandemic has created a scenario that will permanently change much of our culture. In the 1980s, therapists didn’t have to think about being “brief” or efficient, but the rise of managed care forced our hands, and we got better because of it.

This virus has forced us into telemental health and other ways of offering services that, prior to March of this year, we didn’t have to think about unless we wanted to. I have encouraged all of my supervisees to pursue the telemental health credential in our state, and I have done so myself, both as a clinician and supervisor, but I suspect that lots of veteran therapists just didn’t want to mess with a new modality.

Imagine that. Once again, here is something that we were forced to do that we should have been doing already because it provides options and helps our clients. In my early years, I learned to be efficient — to do in one session what my teachers might have had the luxury of doing in five or 10 sessions. I did things efficiently because managed care forced me to do so. But shouldn’t we have been doing that anyway?

I’m not belittling my predecessors. My teachers and supervisors didn’t have to do something they weren’t accustomed to doing, so they only did it if they felt like it. Now I’m realizing that this current pandemic is changing the way we do business, and that change isn’t going away when the virus eventually fades away. I predict that some of our clients will never choose to go back to the way it was. And maybe they shouldn’t. Young therapists will probably look back on this time in history and say, “Why did my teachers need a virus to get them to routinely offer services that benefited their clients? Crazy!”

This will also affect me as a college professor. My students undoubtedly will be asking, “Why do I have to come to the classroom?” long after the pandemic is history.

My clients will be asking something similar: “Why do I have to drive all the way across Atlanta and deal with traffic every week when I can see you from the quiet of my home office (in my slippers and jammies) if I wish?”

So, in our very near future, I suspect that graduate programs will not offer telemental health as an optional certification. Instead, programs will be adjusted to provide telemental health as an expected option for clients who fit well with this modality.

If any of you reading this are holding your breath until things “get back to normal,” don’t hold your breath any longer. We have a new normal, and this will almost certainly, in some ways, be very good for us, good for the counseling profession and, most importantly, good for our clients.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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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.

Making the ‘new’ normal: Five tips for providing teletherapy

By Andrea Chandler September 1, 2020

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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

Utilizing evidence-based practices in telehealth

By Krystal Vaughn, Kellie Giorgio Camelford and George W. Hebert August 23, 2020

The field of mental health is undergoing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professional counselors who worked with children and adolescents before the pandemic have found that some traditional in-person techniques are not appropriate via virtual platforms.

These circumstances are requiring counselors to consider the selection of treatment approaches and interventions that are adaptable to or created for the provision of telemental health. Today, counselors must determine how to select and implement evidence-based practices (EBPs) when working with child and adolescent clients via telemental health during times of crisis.

History of EBPs

In 1996, David L. Sackett and colleagues stated that evidence-based medicine was “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.” Additionally, Leslie Greenberg and Frederick Newman recognized in 1996 that there were different types of study designs that lead to the evidence base, each suited to answer specific types of research questions. For example, according to a 2005 American Psychological Association task force, one may use any of the following to build evidence: clinical observation, qualitative, systematic case studies, single case design, ethnographic, process-outcome, random control trails or meta-analysis.

EBPs and the terminology associated with them have gained popularity over the past few decades in all health care fields. However, their exact origins are mixed. Parts of the nursing profession, for example, posit that EBP originated with Florence Nightingale, whereas the mental health field argues that Lightner Witmer used a similar approach with his creation of the first psychological clinic in 1896.

Regardless, the concept of EBP marked a paradigm shift among health care professionals to consider data-based research rather than relying on the opinions of authorities to guide clinical practice.

Evidence levels

The rigor, or degree, of scientific evidence is often presented in the form of an evidence pyramid analogous to Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives.

This evidence pyramid traditionally moves from expert opinions at the base to case series/case reports to case control studies to randomized control trials to systematic reviews and, finally, to meta-analyses at the pinnacle.

 

Expert opinions

These sources of evidence range in forms from editorials to book chapters. They are good resources for an early understanding of clinical areas because they discuss definition, assessments and treatments. However, these sources lack statistical inferences to reach scientific conclusions.

An expert opinion might come in the form of a textbook chapter in which a person who is generally very knowledgeable in the field opines on the subject matter without referencing a specific compilations of facts. While expert opinions can be very informative and insightful, they should be regarded only as a minimal form of scientific evidence. Few of these expert opinions speak to our current predominant practice of telemental health.

Case series/case reports

These are descriptive studies that may be from a single clinical case or from a series of clients with similar presentations. While traditionally missing inferential statistics, single-case experimental designs will often be implemented. However, control groups or conditions are clearly lacking. Despite these limitations, case series/case reports are often heralded for illuminating novel concerns that generate additional research.

Classic examples of case studies in the mental health field seemed to begin with Anna O., who received psychoanalysis for what was termed “hysteria.” Sigmund Freud wrote about her case and how the “talking cure” led her symptoms to fade. Biopsychologists often cite the case of Phineas Gage, who demonstrated personality changes after a large iron rod was driven through his head in a railroad accident. Then there is the behaviorist report on Little Albert (by John Watson), in which fear was actually instilled into a baby through conditioning.

Case control studies

Case control studies are generally retrospective in nature and investigate the risk of exposure to an event with an eventual negative outcome — usually a disease or disorder. Comparison or control groups are then utilized with people who did not have the initial experience or the disease/disorder. However, these studies are able to declare only relationships, not cause-and-effect relationships. Despite this limitation, evidence for a cause and an effect begin with a correlation.

A typical case control study in the field of mental health might investigate the relationship between physical activity and depressive traits. To that end, the investigators would harvest information from a previously administered questionnaire to patients receiving services at a mental health facility. Additionally, these investigators would use a matched control group of participants without mental health concerns who also completed the questionnaire. Although a control group or comparison group is part of the study, it lacks the characteristic that makes it a true experiment: randomization.

Randomized controlled trials 

It has often been stated that randomization is what brings an investigation from quasi-experimental to truly experimental. Randomized controlled trials assign patients with similar presentations to either the treatment group or the control group based on chance alone. This allows for other mitigating factors to balance themselves between the groups and for the “treatment” itself to cause the scale to tilt. This strategy allows a treatment to be compared with no treatment, an alternative treatment or a waitlist controlled treatment.

A typical randomized controlled trial investigation for a new treatment for depression would involve randomly assigning half of the participants to the new treatment, while the remaining half would be assigned to an existing treatment. Then pretests and post-tests for each group would be compared to evaluate the efficacy of the new protocol.

Although regarded as the gold standard for clinical research trials, randomly assigning patients to treatments may not reflect the best ethical practice without consideration of other mitigating factors.

Systematic reviews 

Systematic reviews evaluate and synthesize the results of similar studies to reach a higher-order conclusion than could be achieved by any one study by itself. Usually, the authors will select a priori factors or themes for which the studies are to be rated. Then, all of the factors or themes are considered and tabulated to reach this conclusion.

Frequently, systematic reviews will limit themselves to only studies that used randomized controlled trials. This way, the results from the group of similar randomized controlled trials can be integrated for a truly convergent conclusion.

In building upon our previous examples of possible depression studies, a systematic review might be used to identify the best treatment protocol for adolescent depression that involves psychopharmacology, individual therapy or both. Additionally, the investigators might restrict the investigation to include only those studies that utilized random assignment. Then, rubrics might be created to gauge the treatments along themes such as symptom reduction, satisfaction of the approach and time commitments. Generally missing from typical systematic reviews is an objective measure that uniformly assesses the results from the different studies. 

Meta-analyses

Meta-analyses are often referenced as a type of systematic review meriting the gold standard of clinical knowledge. Meta-analyses, like all systematic reviews, evaluate similar studies along factors or themes that are selected a priori. However, these forms of evidence utilize a statistical procedure — effect size — to reduce sources of bias in the conclusions. This is the objective uniform measure that is lacking in systematic reviews.

Basically, effect sizes report the magnitude of progress from a treatment. It has often been stated that effect size actually indicates the importance of the results rather than the likelihood that the results are not due to chance, as is the case with statistical significance.

Increasing the rigor from our previous example of a systematic review to that of a meta-analysis would therefore involve utilizing effect sizes. Rather than building upon the a priori themes for comparison, this meta-analysis would compute the effect sizes from measures reported in each study. Then, from the selected studies, average effect sizes would be computed for each treatment protocol so that meaningful comparisons could be made and so that each protocol could be graded on its efficacy.

Beyond the evidence

While the concept of EBP originally relied on the practitioner to consider only data-based research rather than the opinions of authorities to guide clinical practice, the field of medicine built upon this to include other parameters. Specifically, this newer definition defines EBP as the integration of the best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. The expansion of this definition clearly illuminates the additional paradigm shifts that account for cultural sensitivity and patient involvement for treatment decisions, while acknowledging that there are advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

EBP has advantages and disadvantages. The 2005 American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Evidenced Based Practice described EBP as the integration of science and practice. It acknowledged that much research is needed to determine that a treatment is effective. However, the research demonstrating a treatment protocol effective then needs to become a practice offered by clinicians who are treating patients in the field. So, one must consider both the efficacy and the clinical utility of the treatment.

The APA task force defined efficacy as the way in which we evaluate the protocol and examine how strong the evidence is within that evaluation. The clinical utility of the protocol must then explore if the treatment is generalizable and feasible and the cost benefit of the treatment. The marriage of research and practice leads to better clinical outcomes for clients.

EBPs offer clinicians and their clients information on the efficacy of a treatment. This research can inform the expected time frame and outcomes of a given treatment. It clearly demonstrates what the EBP will treat and the age groups for which evidence is provided. It is then up to the counselor to determine if the EBP is a good fit for the child and family. After all, most children do not present with the exact parameters as the control group in a research study. Nor does the current COVID-19 pandemic offer counselors traditional clinical sittings or historic data mirroring the current situation. 

Disadvantages

Not all individual differences can be accounted for in each EBP. For example, one should consider how development, gender, gender identity, culture, ethnicity, race, age, family context, religious beliefs and sexual orientation play a role in treatment. Clients should also have input into their treatment protocol and be afforded informed consent. This may lead to their desire or preference for one type of treatment over another.

As counselors, it is our duty to inform clients of the costs and benefits of treatment approaches but, ultimately, clients determine whether they will proceed with the EBP. During our current times, clients may agree with a treatment approach but have difficulty with technology or face other barriers that decrease their comfort with telemental health.

One example of considering fit for EBP is with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Pamela Hayes discussed the specific challenges between CBT and multicultural therapy. She acknowledged that CBT is evidence based for many disorders and populations, but it may have limitations when applied to some cultures.

Specifically, she named three major limitations:

1) CBT has strong assertiveness themes, overlooking cultures that favor subtle communication.

2) CBT has present focus, neglecting the past.

3) CBT cognitions are focused on individualism, with less regard for environmental interventions.

The last limitation may be especially problematic for individuals with physical disabilities, for whom the disregard of environmental barriers may be great. In response, Hayes recommended culturally responsive CBT modifications.

However, not all EBPs have recommendations on how to modify them to fit certain clients or populations with which the counselor may be working. Therefore, while a treatment may be proved effective for a particular age or disorder, it may be in contradiction to the client’s values. In addition, there may be other barriers to consider, such as technology, privacy or logistics, as is the case currently for many practitioners.

COVID-19 forced many counselors to examine their “practice as usual.” Many sought to gain certification in telemental health so that they could continue offering services to existing clients. This in many ways followed best practices and guidance from the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, which prohibits abandonment of clients.

At the same time, this also forced clinicians to consider whether their treatment of choice was still possible via telemental health or whether another practice/protocol made more sense. For example, in the field of child and adolescent counseling, many play therapists examined the feasibility of child-centered play therapy (CCPT), which is an EBP, via telemental health. Dee Ray expressed the opinion that CCPT might not be the best treatment for telemental health but acknowledged that a similar theoretically oriented treatment involving the parents — filial therapy — could be amenable to telemental health.

Case study

Jane is a 7-year-old girl who experienced anxiety, reportedly resulting in behavioral outbursts and refusals to comply. Jane was seen by her counselor for approximately six sessions prior to the clinic’s closure due to COVID-19 and a statewide stay-at-home order. Jane’s counselor met state board requirements to provide telemental health services, but she could not conceptualize how to work with Jane using CCPT as she had prior to the stay-at-home order.

Jane’s counselor researched the EBP literature and identified other options for the treatment of childhood anxiety. However, the counselor found herself limited in her training, which restricted her ability to provide EBP services outside of her current scope of practice.

Jane’s counselor discussed the options, including a referral, with Jane’s parents in a scheduled telemental health parent consult. In the consult, the counselor discussed the benefits of filial therapy and the typical populations with which the modality is used in therapy. The counselor also explained that the parents would be more involved in session because filial therapy utilizes parents as change agents.

Jane’s counselor stated that this type of therapy would translate to telemental health in ways that CCPT would not. For example, CCPT relies on the therapist-child relationship to facilitate change. This may be difficult to achieve via telehealth because the therapist is not in the room. Filial therapy, on the other hand, relies more on the parents as change agents and may work well via telemental health because the parents are in the room with the child. In addition, they meet with the therapist via telemental health to learn the techniques to use with their child. Through the weekly telemental health sessions, parents are able to discuss challenges while receiving guidance and supervision, making this method more amenable to telehealth.

EBP databases and clearinghouses

Mental health practitioners can access several EBP databases and clearinghouses online, allowing them to consider different approaches to meet the individual needs of clients and cases. A wide range of techniques and programs is available, and through these clearinghouses, practitioners can make comparisons and learn about the reliability and evidence for the techniques and programs. We will highlight a few examples of databases and clearinghouses that we use within our practice when working with children and adolescents.

The seventh edition of the Collection of Evidence-Based Practices for Children and Adolescents With Mental Health Treatment Needs is an educational tool that specifically highlights available mental health treatments for nonclinicians. The guide breaks down treatments into what works, what seems to work, what does not work, and what has not been adequately tested. It highlights disorders such as adjustment disorder, autism, anxiety, depression and many more.

The Results First Clearinghouse Database is powerful because it combines available EBPs from nine national clearinghouses encompassing the categories of crime and delinquency, child and family well-being, education, employment and job training, mental health, public health, sexual behavior and teen pregnancy, and substance use. The programs can be broken down by category, setting, clearinghouse or rating. The rating scale breaks down programs based on highest rated, second-highest rated, mixed effects, no effects, negative effects and insufficient evidence. The following clearinghouses highlighted in this article are included in the Results First Clearinghouse.

Blueprints provides information on programs to promote healthy youth development and to decrease antisocial behaviors in children and adolescents. The database is geared toward youth, families and their communities, from prevention to intervention programs. The database breaks programs into three categories of research: model plus, model and promising.

The California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare provides information and resources used by any professional who may work with children and families in the welfare system. The database breaks down treatments based on a scientific rating scale that includes well supported by research evidence, supported by research evidence, promising research evidence, evidence fails to demonstrate effect, concerning practice, and not able to be rated.

Social Programs That Work provides information on social policy programs. The goal is to enable policy officials and other readers to readily distinguish these programs from other available programs that do not have supportive evidence. The guide breaks down programs into top tier, near top tier and suggestive tier. Of particular interest to practitioners, it highlights some early childhood, parenting, substance abuse and suicide prevention programs.

The National Institute of Justice’s CrimeSolutions provides information on criminal justice, juvenile justice, and crime victim services outcomes to inform practitioners and policymakers about what works and what does not. The database breaks down programs and practice outcomes into effective, promising and no effects.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Evidence-Based Practices Resource Center provides clinicians, community members and policymakers with resources and information on a variety of topics, including mental health services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Teen Pregnancy Prevention Evidence Review identifies programs with evidence of effectiveness in reducing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and associated sexual risk behaviors. The database breaks down studies based on a quality rating of high, moderate, low or not applicable.

 

Additional resources

  • For practitioners hoping to learn more about the EBP process, Evidence-Based Behavioral Practice is a useful online training resource.
  • “Evidence-based practice in social work: A contemporary perspective” by James W. Drisko and Melissa D. Grady, Journal of Clinical Social Work
  • “Evidence-based practice in psychology” by the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, American Psychologist
  • “Clinical expertise in the era of evidence-based medicine and patient choice” by R. Brian Haynes, P.J. Devereaux and Gordon H. Guyatt, BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Evidence-based practice for the National Association of Social Workers
  • “Evidence-based practice: A common definition matters” by Danielle E. Parrish, Journal of Social Work Education.

 

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Krystal Vaughn is a licensed professional counselor supervisor specializing in children ages 2-12. As an associate professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans, she enjoys both teaching and providing clinical services. Her research interests include autism, supervision, play therapy and parent consultation. Contact her at kvaugh@lsuhsc.edu.

Kellie Giorgio Camelford is a licensed professional counselor supervisor specializing in parenting, women’s issues, children and adolescents. She has received specialized training in the fields of play therapy, school counseling, parenting and perinatal mood disorders. As an assistant professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans, she enjoys teaching and supervising students, as well as providing clinical and community services. Her research interests include ethical issues in counseling and supervision. Prior to teaching, she was a professional school counselor at a local parochial high school in New Orleans, and a private practitioner.

George W. Hebert is a faculty member in both the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling and in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies Program at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans. He is a licensed psychologist and holds certificates as a school psychologist and supervisor of school psychological services. He specializes in the assessment and treatment of learning and behavior problems for school-age children and their families, and supervises interns and practicum students in the university-based Child and Family Counseling Clinic.

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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.

Using apps to promote client safety

By Marissa Gray and Victoria Kress August 12, 2020

Daily, professional counselors work with clients who live in unsafe situations involving exposure to violent and exploitative relationships. These unsafe situations might include experiencing partner violence or being the victim of child abuse or human/sex trafficking.

Especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, partner violence and child abuse are on the rise. Clients are at a heightened risk of violence during the pandemic because of increased stress (which can exacerbate violence), isolation from support systems, and more time spent in close quarters with potentially abusive family members.

When working with clients who are being victimized, counselors have an obligation to promote these individuals’ safety. While perpetrators often use technology against clients to control and further victimize them, recent technology apps have been developed that can help counselors facilitate client safety. We will discuss several of these apps in this article.

Harnessing technology to empower clients

Many client safety concerns must be considered in counseling. First, technology is often used by perpetrators as an additional vehicle for abuse. Technology outlets provide perpetrators with opportunities to antagonize, stalk and ultimately continue abusing and exploiting their victims. Technology that can be used to perpetuate abuse includes tracking devices, location-enabled applications on cellphones, cameras, microphones, social media apps and even simplistic communication methods such as abusive text messages, emails and phone calls.

Clients are often forced to surrender their devices completely, especially if their technology use is being monitored by their abuser or if their number is in any way known by their abuser. Clients might consider changing their phone numbers and presence on social media, but this can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

Although taking steps to maintain digital — and, thus, physical — safety involves placing thick boundaries around technology use, it is important to realize the role that technology can also play in supporting survivors’ safety, autonomy and empowerment, all of which are crucial factors in a trauma-informed counseling approach. Counselors can work with clients to maintain their desired level of digital connection while also encouraging them to take measures to be safe. 

Overview of apps for client safety

Several apps exist that can offer crucial support and assistance to clients. These apps are free and are compatible with iOS and Android devices, meaning they are widely accessible regardless of the devices clients use. These apps can be powerful and empowering resources. They are particularly helpful for those in violent relationships and for trafficking survivors seeking to extricate themselves from unsafe relationships. They can also empower clients who have been sexually abused or assaulted, as well as those looking to enhance their safety “just in case.”

All of these apps can be easily incorporated into clinical practice. For example, counselors can support survivors in setting up and configuring these apps and talk with clients about how best to use these apps to promote their safety. For many survivors, these apps can be a small step on the long road toward rehabilitating a sense of personal safety. Thus, counselors can play a crucial role in supporting survivors as they process the tangled emotions that accompany the steps of starting to feel safe again.

In this way, the use of technology via apps is an interactive and engaging intervention that can help empower survivors. By incorporating these safety apps into counseling, clinicians can help survivors begin to feel, perhaps for the first time, that they are worthy of protection and deserve to feel safe.

myPlan

Safety plans are an important part of counseling when working with clients in unsafe relationships. Historically, counselors have developed written safety plans on paper with clients, but these can be dangerous because abusers can discover them, and this may invite violence.

One app that can be useful in developing electronic safety plans is myPlan. This app allows clients to craft safety plans and keep them stored in the cloud of their devices. Plans are saved in the app itself, which is then backed up in the cloud, making it difficult for perpetrators/abusers to access.

On this app, individual survivors respond to several brief questions (automatically generated by the app) regarding their relationship and situation. The app then produces a safety plan tailored to the specific needs of the survivor, based on the responses the person provided to the questions.

Use of this app puts a more secure and technologically advanced spin on safety planning. Keeping safety plans in the cloud allows clients to have immediate access to their plans. In addition, this app connects survivors with local resources, live chats with advocates (trained volunteer advocates working with loveisrespect.org) and even emergency medical/shelter options. The live chat option provides real-time support for survivors that can complement and enhance the safety plan.

Noonlight (formerly SafeTrek)

Noonlight allows individuals to call emergency services without having to dial 911 or make any sudden motions that could alert the abuser that the person is seeking help. In actively unsafe situations, this app can save lives. The app can be especially useful for clients who remain in harm’s way or continue to have contact with their abusers.

Noonlight allows users to simply hold the phone in their pocket, purse or another location that is not suspicious. The app comes equipped with a large safety button that, when gently touched, gives real-time notification to local emergency services to send help. The app is location enabled and holds an individual’s data to pass along to law enforcement in the event that the individual is unable to speak, text or otherwise seek help.

This app can prove especially useful for individuals who are being restrained or are unable to verbally communicate their distress. Furthermore, it helps to provide peace of mind and a sense of empowerment to clients. If an individual is at risk of ongoing abuse, this app can assist them in acquiring emergency assistance.

Aspire News

Another app helpful for clients affected by unsafe situations or ongoing abuse is Aspire News. In the event that a client’s phone is being monitored, this app appears as an ordinary news app with daily headlines, weather reports and so on. Embedded in the “Help” section of the app, however, are emergency contacts, resources, and information on shelters and other supportive services offered to those affected by abuse. The app is location enabled, meaning that it can tailor resources for wherever the client is at that particular moment.

Although this app is geared mainly toward clients affected by relationship violence, it can be equally useful when working with clients in other unsafe situations. It may be especially helpful to those being trafficked because these individuals are moved around frequently and may not be aware of local resources or shelters where they can go for assistance. Aspire News can connect these individuals with resources wherever they go, regardless of their familiarity with the area.

Many resources in the app target survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking, but they also service those experiencing sexual abuse or exploitation. Aspire News connects clients with resources such as shelters, food and hygiene pantries, case management, law enforcement and even counseling. Aspire News may be a helpful app to provide to any client concerned about an abuser searching their phones or punishing them for seeking help.

bSafe

The relatively new bSafe personal safety app offers a variety of helpful tools and resources. It provides specific supports to clients who may be enduring ongoing abusive situations and wish to record or gather evidence against their abusers. The evidence can then be saved to the cloud so that it cannot be destroyed.

The bSafe app has both audio and video recording capabilities (the form used is selected by the app’s user) to capture whatever abusive act may be occurring. The app also offers the ability to livestream an abusive incident or assault as it is occurring. All of these evidentiary recordings can be saved to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost or destroyed by an abuser, even if the abuser destroys the device itself. The app also forwards the footage or recording to trusted people whom the client has previously identified and included on their emergency contact list.

For clients who choose not to report their abuse, it can still be empowering for them to know they have evidence to document the trauma they have survived. This leaves the door open for them to report their abuse in the future if they so choose. Accruing such evidence may also help clients feel heard and believed concerning their lived experiences within an abusive relationship. The evidence gathered by the bSafe app may also assist clients in obtaining protective orders against their abusers or perpetrators.

In addition, the app can automatically alert contacts to call 911. The app is location enabled, meaning that it equips trusted social supports with the individual’s location in the event that the individual is in distress and unable to call for help themselves. The app also offers an SOS button and a “fake call” service, further allowing survivors to reach out for support during an abusive situation without pinging the radar of a perpetrator who may notice or monitor cellphone usage. By simply pressing the button, individuals are able to notify emergency services to send help immediately through use of the app’s location-enabled technology.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Safety planning is crucial when working with clients who have experienced sex trafficking. These clients may be at ongoing risk as various abusers and pimps attempt to wrangle these individuals back into a life of exploitation. As counselors, we can empower this specific population with knowledge of ways to maintain safety during the recovery process.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline has recently begun offering more advanced and accessible options for individuals to use. The hotline provides a plethora of resources and assistance to help clients keep themselves safe. One such resource is the BeFree Textline; individuals can reach out for assistance by texting “HELP” to 233733 in the event they cannot speak freely in the presence of their traffickers or johns. This text line is a powerful resource to share with clients because it offers a great deal of support.

Crisis Text Line

The Crisis Text Line (CTL) can be reached by texting 741741. Callers are then connected with a trained crisis counselor. The CTL is a valid resource for all clients but has immense value for those impacted by relationship violence, trafficking or sexual abuse.

Given that the CTL communication occurs over text, many clients may find it less threatening, or perhaps less noticeable to their perpetrator, to connect with an advocate. The CTL will then connect clients with appropriate referrals and resources that they can use to find support and maintain their personal safety.

Empowering survivors with technology

The aforementioned resources offer examples of apps and other tools that can support clients in their ongoing struggle to maintain safety. Technology can play a unique and emerging role when we work with these resilient clients as counselors. These apps and text tools demonstrate recent advancements in technology that can foster support, safety planning and healing for clients.

Use of these tools is one small way to remind clients that they are indeed worthy of protection, safety, peace and healing. As counselors, we have the privilege of walking alongside these clients in their brave and unique recovery journeys. These technological nuggets provide resources to empower clients while helping to preserve their safety, dignity and healing resilience.

 

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Marissa Gray is a licensed professional counselor working at Youth Intensive Services in Youngstown, Ohio. She provides trauma counseling to those who have been involved in the sex trafficking industry. Contact her at mgray@youthintensiveservices.com.

Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice, particularly regarding work with abuse and trauma survivors. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.

 

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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.