Tag Archives: Technology

More than simply shy

By Bethany Bray July 29, 2019

Social anxiety is different from — and much more than — simply being shy or introverted or having poor social skills. Even so, people who live with social anxiety often find the disorder trivialized or minimized by others, including some mental health professionals, according to Robin Miller, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a member of the American Counseling Association.

“Shyness doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact on someone’s life. That’s an important thing to remember from a clinical point of view,” explains Miller, who specializes in working with adults with anxiety disorders at an outpatient practice just outside of Milwaukee. “Many of my clients get a pat on the head from people and [comments such as], ‘You’re just shy. You have nothing to worry about.’ But you wouldn’t get that for [symptoms of] posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues. You wouldn’t say there’s nothing to worry about.”

Most of all, clients with social anxiety need support and reassurance as they try to discontinue old patterns and behaviors that they have adopted to cope with the paralyzing fear that often accompanies the disorder, says Brad Imhoff, an LPC who was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2012 as he was working on his doctorate.

One characteristic of social anxiety is a constant feeling of apprehension regarding social situations. It is difficult to express just how oppressive and pervasive that feeling can be, says Imhoff, an assistant professor of counseling at Liberty University who lives in central Ohio and teaches in the university’s online program. “You carry this feeling of ‘I just can’t do this’ all the time,” he says. “As human beings, we’re social. And apprehension in every one of [those social situations] can be overwhelming.”

Imhoff, a member of ACA, says he recognizes the irony of his career choice: a person with social anxiety who speaks regularly to rooms full of people, both as a counselor educator and as a frequent presenter at conferences, including giving a session on social anxiety at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans.

Imhoff has learned to navigate the challenges of social anxiety since his diagnosis, but he acknowledges still feeling anxious before speaking engagements. “The question is, how do I manage it and not let it get in the way of life?” he says. “I will have to manage this, to some extent, for my entire life and not let it get to the extremes it has in the past.”

Navigating life through avoidance

Social anxiety is one of a number of related issues — including specific phobia, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and others — that fall under the anxiety heading in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Called social phobia in decades past, social anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent fear over social or performance-related situations, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which cites diagnostic interview data to estimate that 12.1% of U.S. adults will experience social anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Among adolescents ages 13-18, the lifetime prevalence is 9.1%. For all ages, social anxiety disorder is more prevalent in females than in males.

Researchers have not singled out a specific cause for social anxiety disorder, pointing instead to a combination of biological and environmental factors as contributors. Genetics appears to play a large role in many cases, as can negative childhood experiences such as family conflict or being bullied, teased or rejected by peers. It is also believed that individuals who have an overactive amygdala may experience more anxiety in social situations.

According to the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, “Social anxiety disorder can affect people of any age. However, the disorder typically emerges during adolescence in teens with a history of social inhibition or shyness. The onset is usually accompanied by a stressful or humiliating experience, and the severity varies by individual. … There is a higher incidence of social anxiety disorder in individuals with first-degree relatives affected by other panic and anxiety disorders. However, there is no one gene that explains this biological trend. General findings indicate that personal experiences, social environment and biology all play a role in the development of the disorder.”

People often experience symptoms of social anxiety disorder to varying degrees across the life span, according to the center. Symptoms may lessen for stretches of time and then worsen during periods of change or stress, such as a job transition or when dealing with feelings of grief and loss.

What sets social anxiety apart from general anxiety is not only the social component but also an intense fear of judgment by others, explains Holly Scott, an LPC whose Dallas private practice is a regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center. People with social anxiety often harbor strong and pervasive feelings that others will notice their anxiety and judge them, which triggers avoidance behaviors, she says.

At the same time, there are nuances to the diagnosis, and social anxiety can look different in each client, Scott adds. For example, someone may be fine with public speaking and yet not be able to walk into a room in which they don’t know anyone.

“People think it’s not treatable,” Scott says. “Clients label it as ‘this is just the way I am, and I can’t change the way I am.’ It can be difficult to treat or to find a qualified practitioner, but it is treatable.”

Imhoff says he has read that on average, people go 15 years before seeking treatment for social anxiety. Counseling itself is a social interaction, he notes, and people with social anxiety may avoid treatment out of a fear of the close interaction or of being scrutinized by a practitioner.

Because people with social anxiety typically adopt avoidance as one of their coping mechanisms, and perhaps because of the way that social anxiety tends to get minimized or passed off as simply being introverted or shy, these clients often live life without seeking treatment until they reach a breaking point. As Imhoff points out, people can self-manage their social anxiety for an extended period of time by maintaining the same small circle of friends and following certain behavioral patterns such as always using the self-service checkout line at the grocery store.

Living with social anxiety is their reality, Imhoff explains, and they “forge ahead until something causes [them] to realize it’s more significant.” For Imhoff, that “something” was the impending scrutiny involved in defending his doctoral thesis.

“For social anxiety, it’s possible to navigate life with avoidance and survive for a long time. Then something comes up — a life change, such as entering the workforce — that causes them to need help,” he says. “A lot of these safety behaviors aren’t being done consciously. They are things we’ve done throughout our lives to find safety.”

Assessment and core beliefs

Avoidance behaviors are one of the biggest red flags that a client might be dealing with social anxiety, Miller says. These behaviors can extend to staying in situations in which the person is unhappy yet comfortable, such as a bad romantic relationship, a toxic friendship or a job that the person doesn’t enjoy or isn’t advancing in.

Other indicators include rumination and overthinking social experiences. This can include asking oneself over and over again, “What did that person think of me?” Miller explains, whether it’s an interaction with a neighbor while walking the dog or a yearly performance evaluation with one’s supervisor.

Counselors should be aware that social anxiety often co-occurs with other mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse (which often becomes a coping mechanism) that may need to be treated first or in tandem with the disorder, Miller adds. In addition, other issues such as grief may be complicating a client’s social anxiety. “They’re not always struggling with one thing. Make sure you’re working on what they’re struggling with the most,” Miller says.

Scott suggests asking clients at intake about how they deal with social situations and how often they go to gatherings or parties. Are they uncomfortable introducing themselves to new people, making a phone call or using the restroom in public places? If Scott hears symptoms that might indicate the presence of social anxiety, she uses a questionnaire (she recommends the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, available at nationalsocialanxietycenter.com) to pinpoint the client’s fear level and to identify goals to focus on in therapy.

It can also be helpful to identify a client’s core beliefs and values and how those are affecting the person’s choices and behaviors, Imhoff says. People with social anxiety often carry a core belief that they’re inadequate or inferior, which spurs a fear of being judged, he explains. These clients frequently place weight and focus on situations that seemingly confirm their core belief and discount those that might disprove it. They might ruminate over a conversation with a colleague that didn’t go well, for example, without giving any consideration to all of the past conversations that did go well, Imhoff notes.

“They move through life paying very close attention to and taking to heart scenarios that confirm their core belief,” he says. “It’s important to help the client take off the blinders. Talk through ways they are competent, and get to the root of their concerns. Be aware of the multitude of their experiences and not just those they struggle with.”

To identify core beliefs, counselors can listen for themes in the way that clients talk about themselves, other people and the world. These themes can suggest deeply held beliefs to challenge or to explore further in therapy. Having clients work on thought journals can also be helpful in finding patterns, Imhoff says. He also suggests using a prediction log, in which clients name upcoming social scenarios that make them anxious and describe what they assume will happen. After the scenario occurs, clients can look back at their predictions with the counselor to talk through how accurate these foresights were.

After core beliefs and values have been identified, the counselor can work with clients to reframe their perspective around new core beliefs. For example, clients who place value on providing for their family could focus on that value to help them overcome their anxiety and discomfort over applying for a new job.

“Look for evidence that supports their new core belief,” Imhoff says. “If their belief is ‘I am capable,’ have them write down even the most minor piece of evidence [in a journal]. It makes it concrete and documented so they can refer back to it and talk it through with a counselor.”

From there, the counselor can work with clients on challenging cognitive distortions and black-and-white thinking, Imhoff suggests. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be helpful, as can guiding clients to adopt a growth-focused orientation. With that mindset, every social interaction becomes an opportunity to learn rather than a pass-fail situation, Imhoff explains.

Clients with social anxiety may also feel that they’re failing because they can’t assume an extroverted, life-of-the-party façade. Counselors can help these clients learn that there is a continuum of social skills, Imhoff says. For example, perhaps they got through a work meeting and contributed their thoughts despite having a shaky voice and sweaty palms. “Work on [helping them realize] that it’s not black and white, it’s not all success or failure. There’s an in between for almost all scenarios,” he says. “Help them to recognize that in all social interaction, there is ebb and flow. It’s not a pass-fail exercise but an opportunity to connect with someone and learn moving forward.”

Additionally, ACT techniques can help clients learn to accept their anxiety rather than trying to get rid of it or avoiding triggering situations. Imhoff uses the imagery of “keeping anxiety in the passenger seat because I know it’s coming along but not letting it take control of the wheel.” Clients can learn to say, “There you are anxiety; I knew you were coming,” even as they move on with life and navigate situations they previously would have avoided.

Scott regularly uses cognitive restructuring and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) with her clients who have social anxiety. She also uses a mindfulness technique called curiosity training that helps clients label their anxious thoughts as “background noise.” With this technique, users try to adopt an approach of curiosity about and interest in what is being said by others rather than assuming that others are judging them.

“In any situation,” Scott says, “whether they’re having a conversation, public speaking or sitting somewhere having lunch, they’ve usually got a constant dialogue going in their head. [It’s] self-criticism about how people must be thinking of them: ‘They don’t like my clothes’ or ‘I just stuttered while speaking.’ Curiosity training helps keep your mind on the present and learn how to pull your mind back when it starts wandering.”

Elizabeth Shuler, an LPC who has been working as an international school counselor in Amman, Jordan, for four years, recommends mindfulness techniques. She has often used Kristin Neff’s self-compassion practices in addition to dialectical behavior therapy, meditation and yoga for clients with social anxiety, both when she was in private practice in Colorado and Wyoming and currently in her work with adolescents and adults at her school.

“When we dig into their fears, most clients with social anxiety are really afraid that other people will agree with their own negative judgments of themselves. They’re worried that they will be proved right,” says Shuler, an ACA member. “I had a client who walked through the office the same way every day to avoid the people he was afraid of interacting with and had panic attacks when his route had to change or people he was avoiding crossed his path. These types of behaviors are meant to stave off panic but end up reinforcing it. My role as a counselor is to help clients see how these behaviors are actually making their panic worse and help them to slowly replace them with more helpful behaviors.”

Exposure

Exposure techniques are often central to treating social anxiety because they gradually reintroduce clients to anxiety-provoking situations in a healthy way.

Miller is trained in exposure and response prevention and finds it a powerful tool for working with clients with social anxiety. The behavioral technique requires clients to put in a lot of work themselves outside of sessions. The counselor collaborates with the client to develop a hierarchy of exposure based on the client’s needs and treatment goals and supports the client throughout the process.

As Miller explains, exposure assignments start small and build over time as clients become comfortable with each homework task. She describes this as a “Goldilocks situation” — not too much challenge and not too little, but just the right amount, tailored to each individual client. Miller says she emphasizes to clients that the treatment is in their hands — they have to do their part to experience a successful outcome.

“A lot of people have anticipatory anxiety, but once they do it [complete the exposure assignment], they’re OK,” Miller says. “A lot of people get over that hill of worry. They do it for a week or two and realize they can do it. Trust between a client and clinician is huge because we’re asking them to do really scary things.”

Miller often gives clients who are early in treatment the assignment of calling multiple businesses to ask what their hours are. Clients might have to overcome feeling a little foolish because that information is readily available on the internet, she notes. However, the goal is for clients to complete the task without falling back on habits they formed to avoid social situations, such as relying on technology in lieu of having personal interactions. Clients repeat the task over and over until they no longer feel anxious about picking up the phone and making a call, she explains.

Once they’ve mastered that task, clients might move on to going inside a store and asking a question in person. Or they might switch to walking their dog in their neighborhood during a busy time of day and saying hello to at least one other person during each walk.

As clients complete each task and return to their next counseling session, they process these interactions with Miller, discussing how the interactions felt to them and what went right or wrong. “Sometimes the client will come in and say, ‘I’m so bored with this.’ I say, ‘Great! That means it’s time to move on to something bigger,’” Miller says. “You need repetition with assignments. You need to do [tasks] over and over for your brain to get used to it. … The more you do it, [the more] it overwrites [old] patterns and anxious feelings.”

As a practitioner who specializes in treating social anxiety, Scott has a laundry list of exposure assignments that she uses with clients, ranging from making eye contact during a shopping trip to asking for directions from a stranger to calling into a radio talk show to singing karaoke. As clients progress, it can be helpful to assign them tasks that are certain to create some level of discomfort or awkwardness, such as going into Starbucks and ordering a hamburger, she says. This can be especially hard for clients who have a strong fear of being judged by others, but dealing with the responses they receive desensitizes these clients over time as they repeat the tasks.

Miller acknowledges that counselors may need to provide their clients with some ongoing motivation during exposure work. If clients come to session without completing their assigned tasks, she suggests asking leading questions to find out if they are avoiding the work or genuinely struggling to make it a priority among their other challenges.

“Who wants to go home and do anxiety-provoking things?” Miller says. “[We] have to find a way to motivate them. We want them to feel empowered to go out and do [an assignment]. Remind them that they’re in pain because something is not changing. … You can’t snap your fingers and make this go away. It’s going to be hard work and take time.”

It can be useful to circle back and remind clients of their core beliefs and the goals they want to achieve. For example, consider clients who say they ultimately want to start a family but whose social anxiety prevents them from entering the dating scene and potentially meeting a partner.

“They may not see how calling a drugstore [as an exposure assignment] is getting them to be able to date. But remind them that they’re building a foundation to be able to do that,” Miller says. “It may not have an immediate payoff, but the easier these things become for you, everything builds.”

Miller often uses the metaphor of training for a marathon to keep clients motivated. You don’t run 26.2 miles right away, she tells them. You start with one or two miles and then keep adding more distance, mile by mile.

Social skills

In addition to exposure work and cognitive restructuring, the counselors interviewed for this article recommend social skills training for clients with social anxiety. Avoidance behaviors may have kept these clients from learning and practicing social skills that are commonplace among their peers who do not deal with social anxiety.

“If you’ve been avoidant for years, you miss out on learning from all of the social interaction that others have had,” Miller says. “Sometimes they’ve built a life to minimize their pain, their anxiety.”

Goal setting and planning ahead, with support from a counselor, can help these clients navigate situations that are foreign to them and that naturally provoke anxiety. Miller suggests troubleshooting with clients. For instance, if their office holiday party is coming up, a counselor can talk through expected behaviors with clients and work on small talk and other exercises to help them get through the evening.

Setting realistic goals can also be comforting, Miller adds. “[They] don’t have to go in and work the room, [but] if they haven’t had a lot of social experience, they may not realize what’s expected,” Miller says. Instead, clients might set a goal of talking to three people whom they already know. Maybe at next year’s party, they can increase that goal from three people to five people.

Miller also reminds clients that a certain measure of social anxiety is simply part of being human. Even she, a therapist who makes a living talking to people, acknowledges sometimes being uncomfortable in social situations.

Kevin Hull is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Lakeland, Florida, who specializes in counseling children, adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Social skills training, along with group therapy, plays a large role in the work Hull does with clients around social anxiety, which he says often goes hand in hand with autism.

In individual counseling sessions, Hull uses puppets with clients to role-play social situations and work through what is expected. For example, Hull might instruct clients to verbalize a food order to his puppet without the usual help from mom or dad or ask his puppet for help finding a certain building on a school campus. Afterward, they process the experience together and talk about the emotions clients felt as their puppet had to interact and ask questions.

Humor can also be a great tool for overcoming the fear associated with social anxiety, says Hull, a member of ACA. He often shows clips of TV shows or movies (via YouTube) in client sessions as a lighthearted way of starting conversations about what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to social skills. Particularly popular with clients are scenes with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper wrapping himself in bubble wrap to stay safe or wearing a second set of “bus pants” over his work outfit when taking public transportation. Another favorite is the title character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who initially can’t stand being around the Whos but ends up transforming over the course of the story.

“Using humor is a great thing to counter the fear,” Hull says. “When you can laugh at something, that gets people opening up and listening.”

Group work

Group therapy — a format in which clients are expected to interact with others and contribute to a discussion — would seem to be a nightmare for individuals who are socially anxious. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Hull.

Although it can take clients some time to warm up to the idea, group therapy can play a powerful role in imparting the skills needed to navigate social anxiety, says Hull, an assistant professor and faculty adviser in Liberty University’s online master’s counseling program. In addition to helping participants sharpen their social skills, group counseling can instill perspective — something with which Hull’s clients who are autistic sometimes need extra help.

“With autism, clients have a hard time putting themselves in others’ shoes, so group is a great way for them to hear from the mouths of peers [and] hear them talk about what they’re going through,” Hull says. “Maybe someone [in group] had to ride a different bus than usual. It was terrifying at first, but they were OK and actually ended up talking to the person they sat next to.”

The group format, in which participants take turns offering comments, can model and teach the back-and-forth “tennis match” that is the basis of healthy conversation, Hull adds. It can also help clients learn to tolerate and listen when someone is talking about a subject that doesn’t interest them — a circumstance that previously would have triggered their fight-or-flight response and caused them to exit the situation.

Hull often has group participants speak for five minutes each on something they are passionate about. Afterward, he urges all of the group members to ask questions or make a comment about what was said.

“This is really hard with autism. If they don’t like something, it’s utterly meaningless to them,” Hull says. “This has them put themselves in others’ shoes and imagine how it’s like [something that they] like. This can transfer to social situations outside of group, such as a dinner party where other people are talking about whatever. Can you listen and learn something? It’s teaching their brain to overcome fear and learn a new normal. Everyone is scary when you first meet them, but you can do it. If you can do it in group, it’s the same as at school or a new job.”

Hull also uses video games in sessions as a way for participants to learn about group dynamics, leader/contributor roles and overcoming frustration (see sidebar, below).

It is important to prepare individuals with social anxiety for the group setting as much as possible ahead of time. Hull often shows clients the group room at his office (or emails them photos of it) and explains the format and what sessions will entail before they join group counseling.

“I walk back to the [group] room with the client and their caregiver before a group session so they can see it,” Hull says. “I explain, ‘Everyone who is coming here feels what you feel, and they’re all struggling with this.’”

When new clients join a group, he never makes them introduce themselves or speak right off the bat. He also allows them to bring anything that might boost their courage, such as a favorite stuffed animal or even a parent in the cases of younger clients. With social anxiety, it is important to allow clients to warm up and contribute at their own pace, he says.

“I can see group members five or six sessions in and they haven’t talked yet. I never stop trying to get them to engage or open up, even if all they can do is a head nod or fist bump,” Hull says. “[I emphasize that] I’m just happy they can be in the room.”

Hull acknowledges that group counseling isn’t a fit for every client who struggles with social anxiety. Social anxiety falls on a spectrum, and for some clients, the disorder is so severe that a group setting would be too much, he says. It is important to continue individual sessions with these clients, with group counseling becoming a possible long-term goal for some of them, he says.

When it comes to group counseling and social anxiety, it is crucial to take things step by step and to celebrate little victories, Hull emphasizes. With clients on the autism spectrum “the victories are fewer and far between,” he acknowledges, “but when they happen … you feel like you’ve won the Super Bowl.”

The long haul

Hull says that counselors should view social anxiety as a process rather than something to “fix.” Neuroscience tells us that the brain responds better to slow and steady change rather than forced or rushed adaptation. This is especially true for clients who struggle with social anxiety in addition to neurodevelopmental issues, past trauma or other mental health diagnoses, Hull notes.

Something else that counselors should avoid is projecting their assumptions onto clients with social anxiety. Just because the counselor went to prom as a teenager doesn’t mean that should automatically become a goal for every teenage client or, for that matter, even be considered the rite of passage that it once was, Hull says.

Counselors should really get to know their client’s world first before doing anything else, Hull says. “Avoid putting your agenda or perceptions on a client. We often see the potential in our clients, and it’s hard not to say, ‘Just do it!’ It can be discouraging and slow going at times, [but] be patient.”

 

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Technology and social anxiety: A double-edged sword

We live in a world where a person can text a happy birthday message to a friend, order a week’s worth of groceries for delivery and apply for a loan with the click of a button — all without having to speak to another human.

So, when it comes to social anxiety, technology can be a double-edged sword. Clients can certainly use it as an easy escape route to avoid social situations. At the same time, mental health practitioners can use it as a teaching tool with clients and as a bridge to overcoming long-held behavioral patterns.

“As great as it can be, technology can be part of avoidance,” says Robin Miller, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in treating adults with anxiety. “Learn how to have conversations [about technology]. Make sure a client isn’t too reliant on it and unable to do things in a more social, direct way.”

Miller suggests that professional clinical counselors ask clients about their technology use at intake along with other questions about avoidance behaviors. Counselors can prompt clients to provide examples of situations where they feel most anxious and then listen for overreliance on technology, such as texting to ask someone out on a date or habitually using the self-service checkout line when shopping.

Social media can also exacerbate the assumption of judgment that often accompanies social anxiety, Miller adds. Clients who see photos and posts about friends’ and peers’ vacations, children or happy life events may come to believe that their lives pale in comparison.

Elizabeth Shuler, an LPC and an international school counselor, agrees. She says social media has created a new layer of social anxiety “centered around likes, comments and followers” in many of the adolescents with whom she works.

“I see students every day who are upset — to the point of panic attacks — that they’ve lost followers or that no one is liking their Instagram pictures. Instead of being afraid of being seen as stupid, these kids are afraid of not getting likes. It is a whole new world of judgment that has been unleashed on our teens, and it is taking a toll,” Shuler says. “However, many people who find face-to-face interaction intimidating can benefit from starting with digital interactions. Using texting, video and other digital means of conversation can help people with social anxiety learn social skills and give them a chance to practice new skills in a safer, lower stakes environment.”

Kevin Hull, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, finds technology — specifically, video games — a natural tool for working with his young clients, many of whom are on the autism spectrum. In group counseling, Hull uses multiplayer games such as Minecraft to introduce clients to interacting and working together in a way that provokes less anxiety than face-to-face conversation might. Group members take turns being a “foreman” and leader in Minecraft sessions. The group learns to communicate and work together while dealing with frustrations and the nuances of the leader/contributor roles. “If technology wasn’t there, these kids would be even more regressed,” Hull says.

Conversations about technology use can also be an important part of social skills training in counseling, Hull adds. For example, young clients might claim that they are “dating” someone when they are actually just texting or playing video games together over the internet.

Hull often talks with clients about how texting is a good place to start communication but that it should not become their be-all, end-all. He’ll say to the client, “It’s great you’ve made a connection through texting, but what about the next level? Your brain’s process to communicate in text is the same as in speech. It’s just a different route.”

— Bethany Bray

 

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Social anxiety and college

The transition to college — leaving home, living with a roommate and establishing a new social circle, all while navigating academic responsibilities — doesn’t have to be paralyzing for students with social anxiety. Read more in our online exclusive, “Heading to college with social anxiety.”

 

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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

Letters to the editor: ct@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.

Learning to love (or at least leverage) technology

By Lindsey Phillips May 22, 2019

A client suffers from one of the oldest and most common fears: arachnophobia. The mere thought of a spider causes her anxiety, and she often has a friend check a room for spiders before she enters. She wants to get help, but she lives in a remote area without access to a clinical expert. Could the use of augmented reality help the client overcome this phobia and actually touch a tarantula?

Arash Javanbakht, an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Stress, Trauma & Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC) at Wayne State University in Michigan, has found that it can. At STARC, Javanbakht uses augmented reality along with telepsychiatry as a method of exposure therapy for clients with phobias.

The client with the spider phobia, for example, would put on the augmented reality device and connect with the therapist through a wireless telepsychiatry platform. The therapist, who has full control of the augmented exposure scenario, sees a map of the client’s environment on a computer monitor. At first, the therapist places a small spider across the room in front of the client. Then, the therapist adds a larger spider that crawls across the wall. The therapist notes what the client sees and asks how she is doing. By the end of the session, several types of spiders — all moving around — and spider webs surround the client. In this safe, controlled environment, the therapist and client work together to help her overcome her fear.

The impressive part is how quickly this method can help clients. For Javanbakht, the ultimate goal is to have clients touch a real-life tarantula (or a tank containing one). Comparing traditional therapy with the augmented experience, Javanbakht discovered that what would take on average six face-to-face sessions could often be accomplished in 40 minutes with the use of augmented reality. He contends that pairing technology such as this with traditional therapy approaches can significantly improve treatment efficacy for other phobias, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Despite the possibilities that new technologies offer, however, counselors are often reluctant to use them. Many prefer face-to-face counseling and question the impact that technology may have on the therapeutic relationship. Others are unsure of what technology to use or how to use it. Most counselors worry about possible ethical implications. For some, the overarching counseling principle of do no harm translates into do not use tech

Olivia Uwamahoro Williams, an assistant professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia, says this hesitancy to embrace technology is understandable because counseling is a person-centered profession. However, counselors shouldn’t think about technology as a means of removing the person completely, she argues. Instead, they can use technology to enhance mental health and counselor training outcomes, she says.

“There’s a general lack of understanding in the counseling community about high technology such as artificial intelligence [AI] and how it will impact the field,” adds Russell Fulmer, who is part of the core faculty at the Counseling@Northwestern program with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Some counselors incorrectly assume that they have to be well-versed in the inner workings of technology or must learn how to code, and many counselors even fear losing their jobs to high technology such as AI, he says.

However, Fulmer, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a member of the American Counseling Association, doesn’t believe that counselors’ livelihoods are in jeopardy from technology in the short term. The jobs most in danger of becoming obsolete are ones that are repetitive, he says. Thus, occupations such as counseling that involve social and emotional intelligence are better positioned in the long term, he explains.

Holly Scott, an LPC and the owner of Uptown Dallas Counseling in Texas, used to be adamantly against using technology in counseling. Now, however, she is a technology convert, citing at least five ways that counselors can use technology in their practices:

  • Helping clients find mental health practitioners who are a good match for their presenting issues
  • Finding and disseminating evidence-based information
  • Improving clients’ mental health through the use of virtual or augmented reality
  • Encouraging clients to follow up on treatments and the skills they learn in session through the use of mental health apps
  • Reaching a broader range of clients through telehealth 

Meeting clients where they are

Younger generations have a difficult time imagining a world in which libraries and encyclopedias were the only means of researching school projects. Today, they simply pull out a smartphone and Google it — sometimes while still sitting in class. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, 95% of teenagers reported having a smartphone or having access to one, and 45% said they were online on a near-constant basis.

Technology is not just for the young, however. Pew also found significant growth in tech adoption in recent years among older generations, particularly Gen Xers and baby boomers. In fact, boomers are significantly more likely to own a smartphone today than they were in 2011 (67% in 2018 versus 25% in 2011), and the majority (57%) now use social media.

James Maiden, the assistant dean of student affairs and an assistant professor of counseling at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), finds that clients are outpacing counselors in terms of technology. Counselors need to do a better job of meeting clients where they are, he says. “Don’t think [technology] is going to replace you,” he argues. “Think of how [it] can extend the good work that you’re doing.”

In fact, Maiden, an LPC and an ACA member, views technology as “a gateway into seeking a professional [counselor].” Counselors can begin by providing peer-reviewed, factual information and tools online for people who search the internet for help, he says. Making this information readily available to the public will help lessen the stigma around mental health and open the door for more individuals to eventually take the next step of going to see a counselor, he explains.

Scott says most clients find her private practice in Dallas through her website or by Googling “anxiety” and “Dallas.” She acknowledges that this is a more “selfish” use of technology — one that helps counselors get their names out there. However, if counselors share with the public their specialties and what they offer, then it’s a win-win for both the counselor and the client, she says.

Part of the purpose of Scott’s website is to remove as many stressors for potential clients as possible. The information it provides can help address people’s fears and concerns and normalize the counseling experience, she says. For example, a counselor’s website can include pictures of the office and address common questions that first-time clients might have: Where do I sit in session? Are people going to see me in the waiting room? What do I say to people if they see me sitting there? How much does counseling cost? Where do I park?

Of course, the counseling profession has made some strides in meeting clients where they are through the use of technology. For example, distance counseling and telehealth remotely provide services to clients who may not be able to see a counselor in person because of location or limited mobility. 

More widespread use of telehealth has led to a significant decrease in the number of psychiatric admissions among those residing in geographically isolated areas, according to Panagiotis Markopoulos, the clinical lab director and a faculty member in the counselor education program at the University of New Orleans. He touts several benefits to using distance counseling:

  • Safety (clients can express themselves more freely)
  • Less social stigma (clients can avoid public encounters)
  • Accessibility (clients can receive help regardless of their geographical location or daily schedule)
  • Affordability (clients can receive counseling services at a lower cost than with face-to-face counseling and save on transportation costs)

For clients who prefer or need to use distance counseling, Markopoulos, an LPC in private practice in New Orleans, recommends video- and text-based communication tools such as My Clients Plus and Zoom. In addition, Second Life, a 3D virtual game, offers an encrypted way of communicating, Markopoulos says. If clients value anonymity yet want to be present with a counselor, they can create avatars, enter the “virtual session” and talk through a headset or text-based chat, he explains.

Counseling: There’s an app for that

The high cost of some technologies prevents private practitioners from using them, but mental health apps are an affordable way for counselors to incorporate technology into practice. In addition, these apps can allow people who face barriers to traditional mental health services to access help.

According to Psycom.net, health experts predict that apps will play an important role in the future of mental health care. In particular, mobile apps for cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), relaxation and mindfulness interventions are gaining momentum as supplements to in-person therapy.

Scott, who serves on the board of the National Social Anxiety Center, personally knows the power of using CBT apps with clients. When a client comes to Scott, she offers to use either paper handouts of CBT activities or MoodKit, a CBT app developed by two clinical psychologists. She’s noticed that most clients 35 years and younger prefer to use the app. “For a certain population, [the MoodKit app] really increases the speed of the change and the efficacy of the therapy,” she adds.

Scott has also observed that when she asks clients to record their moods between sessions, those who do it manually often wait until the last minute — sometimes in the waiting room — to complete the assignment. Clients generally respond better to the app, she says, perhaps because it lets them easily chart their moods and provides them with a visual diagram.

When Scott introduces MoodKit, both she and the client open the app on their phones, and she walks the client through all the activities such as daily mood tracking, thought records and behavior activation. With thought records, the app guides users through all the important questions and helps them label the cognitive distortion with prompts such as “Is this all-or-nothing thinking?” Scott also thinks the app’s section for behavior activation is brilliant. With a client who has social anxiety, for example, the app provides a choice of therapeutic activities such as introduce yourself to a stranger. After the client selects an activity, the app prompts the individual to select a day and time to complete this activity.   

Incorporating a CBT app with regular counseling also encourages clients to put the CBT skills they are learning in session to use in their everyday lives, Scott continues. The outcome is best if counselors follow up with clients about the app and the progress they are making, she notes. For example, counselors can ask: What do you like about the app? What activity did you complete this week? When you did that activity, what did it feel like? “The therapist’s input … is what will change [the app] from just something [clients] play with on their phones into a real therapeutic, mental-health-changing application,” Scott says.

Scott, who volunteers as a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line (which provides free crisis intervention via text messaging), has also discovered that several of her clients already use the meditation/mindfulness app Headspace. If clients are using an app, counselors can see if the app works with their therapeutic goals before using it in session with them, she advises.

Before meditation apps, Scott would play a recording (such as background noise at a bar) and have clients focus on the conversation. Then she would tell clients to do the same thing outside of sessions, starting with 10 minutes a day and working up to 30 minutes. Clients often felt too busy to set up a place where they could play a recording and work on meditation, but the app creates the environment for them, increasing the likelihood they will practice the skill outside of session, she says.

Maiden, like Scott, is a technology convert. He started learning more about incorporating technology into counseling while serving as the principal investigator for UDC’s Verizon Innovative Learning program, which provides educational experiences that promote and support the involvement of ethnic minority boys in science, technology, engineering and math. The program included free summer sessions, led by counselors-in-trainings, that discussed how to maintain one’s mental health. Afterward, the boys created apps that featured information on mental health stigma, stress prevention, anxiety, depression, suicide awareness and local mental health resources (such as counseling centers). Participants also received a year of mentoring and follow-up workshops.

Through their involvement in the program, the students learned the importance of seeking help when dealing with issues such as bullying, death and violence. They grew more likely to reach out to mentors or parents or to access the local resources included in the apps, according to Maiden, who presented at the 2019 ACA Conference on using technology to increase mental health awareness.

Through his involvement, Maiden realized the potential apps have for functioning as counseling tools that supplement the face-to-face work. Tech tools such as those created in Maiden’s program also allow people to share information with others who may not be inclined to discuss their mental health, he continues. For example, when the friend of one of the boys who had participated in the program joked on the phone about killing himself, the boy quickly informed his friend that suicide was not a laughing matter and that he was going to tell his mother, who would tell his friend’s parents. The boy also provided his friend with local resources from the app. As a result of his actions, the friend’s parents sought help for their son.

Exposing clients to a virtual world

As Scott points out, exposure therapy can be time-consuming and expensive to do when using real-life props and scenarios. As Javanbakht’s impressive results demonstrate, however, virtual and augmented reality can allow therapists to remotely expose clients to feared objects or situations. This approach is more time- and cost-efficient and provides a safe, effective outcome, Scott says.

Markopoulos finds the immersive quality of virtual reality particularly helpful for clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Research indicates that individuals with ASD are drawn to technology, and they often learn and understand visually, he says, so using virtual reality with this population makes sense. “The higher the immersion, the more likely the child who has been diagnosed with autism will be able to apply the social skills that he or she has been taught in a real-life situation,” Markopoulos explains.

Markopoulos, an ACA member, has received several awards, including the 2018 Graduate Student Research Award from the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors and the 2017 Make a Difference Grant award from the Association for Humanistic Counseling, for his work with virtual reality in the treatment of children with ASD. He also presented on the topic at the 2018 ACA Conference.

Markopoulos developed a virtual mall for individuals with ASD and for those who present with social anxiety. Both Markopoulos and the client put on the head-mount display (box-shaped glasses that allow the user to see the virtual/augmented scenario) and enter the virtual mall, which is busy and noisy. The client will see and hear coins falling from the ATM and televisions playing, see flashing lights from a photo booth in the center of the mall and see avatars constantly walking past. All of these visual and auditory elements serve as checkpoints to figure out the source of anxiety for the client.

As the client passes by a large television producing a high-pitched frequency, the client pauses and stares at it, and Markopoulos takes note. Markopoulos has attached a heartbeat sensor to the client, and upon hearing the television, the client’s heart rate escalates. At this point, the client says the mall is overwhelming and removes the head-mount display.

Through the use of virtual reality, Markopoulos has identified what is causing the client’s anxiety — the high-pitched frequency he programmed into the television. With this information, he creates a new scenario with checkpoints focused on the same high-pitched frequency, and he allows the client to control the volume. Upon entering the virtual world again, the client reports the sound is loud and overwhelming, so the client lowers the volume. Slowly, with Markopoulos’ help, the client is able to cope with the sound at a low frequency. Then Markopoulos gradually increases the sound, helping the client slowly build capacity for handling more noise.

Scott and Maiden are excited about the possibilities of incorporating virtual reality into counseling practice. In fact, Maiden plans to use virtual reality in the Verizon Innovative Learning program at UDC this summer. He wants the boys who participate to create virtual safe spaces so they can process and cope with all the stressors they experience. He hopes these safe spaces will be tools the boys can use at home until they are able to make it to their next counseling sessions.

Mental health chatbots

Fulmer doesn’t think that AI will eclipse the human need for face-to-face interaction that counseling provides. Instead, he equates AI to a multivitamin — one that will serve as a supplement to counseling.

To learn more about the intersection of AI and mental health, Fulmer reached out to X2AI, an AI startup in Silicon Valley that is, according to language on its website, “building an AI that will … make the lives of people suffering from various forms of mental illness much better.” Fulmer offered his services and now serves as a consultant and on the company’s advisory board.

As Fulmer explains, Tess is X2AI’s largest and most versatile mental health chatbot. She provides psychological support for people using automated chat conversations through text-based messaging apps that are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). When a person talks to Tess, she not only analyzes the conversation but also remembers details and learns from what the person says.

Along with X2AI, Fulmer conducted a randomized controlled trial to test the efficacy of using Tess to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in college students. Depending on the group, participants received unlimited access to Tess for either two weeks with daily check-ins or four weeks with semiweekly check-ins. The college students used Facebook Messenger (a text-based communication) to interact with Tess. She provided psychoeducation and interventions to help the students cope with their depression or anxiety.

Fulmer and his colleagues found that having access to Tess resulted in a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression among the students. In addition, the participants said they felt comfortable and satisfied with the therapeutic experience. One student said it felt like talking to a real person and noted the benefits derived from the specific tips Tess provided for ways to improve mental health. Another student reported learning new ideas for making small changes.

Fulmer points out that this study and the students’ feedback suggest that chatbots can help with two of the most common counseling issues — anxiety and depression. Thus, counselors might want to explore the use of mental health chatbots such as Tess, in conjunction with traditional therapy, to see if it improves the mental health of some clients.

Mental health chatbots can also reach a wider, more diverse group of clients, Fulmer says. For example, X2AI has developed a chatbot (Karim) to help Syrian refugees and a chatbot (Sister Hope) designed for clients who are Catholic. Fulmer also notes that rural populations that don’t have much access to mental health care and older adults who often experience loneliness could benefit from mental health chatbots.

“AI is the biggest opportunity that humankind has ever had,” Fulmer says. “When there’s opportunity and the potential of power and influence, it must be monitored. It must be crafted, and it … must evolve appropriately. And counselors can play a role in … the evolution of psychological AI.”

Virtual role-play

In graduate counseling classes, students often engage in role-play, with one student playing the role of the client — including assuming the client’s mannerisms and personal history — and the other student embodying the role of the counselor. This traditional training method offers several benefits, including helping students develop empathy and experience what it takes to be vulnerable in a session, Williams points out.

However, because students would often “break” from their role-playing if they were caught off guard, Williams, an ACA member and LPC at the Healing Center for Change in Georgia, felt the immersion aspect was not as authentic as it could be. To make the experience more immersive, she started using virtual simulation to create these role-playing scenarios — a topic she presented on at the 2019 ACA Conference.

With virtual simulation, students go into a virtual lab and interact with avatars. The scenarios are limited only by counselor educators’ imaginations, she says. It could be a client with bipolar disorder or a family session with two adults and three children. She points out that a virtual space is also less stressful for students because it allows them to focus on the counseling role. 

Another major benefit is that counseling instructors can easily manipulate or alter the student–avatar interactions and virtual scenarios to further challenge students and prepare them for real-world counseling sessions, Williams says. Instructors can also pause the simulations when students are feeling frustrated and process with them, she says.

For example, recently, when an avatar’s voice became low and choked, the counseling student doing the simulation did not pause to address the emotional change but just kept processing the client’s story. Williams wanted to check this, so she stepped over and asked the person managing the equipment to make the avatar cry. When the avatar started crying, the student froze, not knowing how to respond. Williams paused the session to process this issue with the student, who admitted that she didn’t handle it well when people cried. The other students who had been observing and taking notes on the virtual session acknowledged that they wouldn’t have known how to respond either.

This virtual experience made the counselors-in-training realize that they needed to work on handling clients’ emotions and led to a class discussion on strategies. Williams says she wouldn’t have been able to recreate the same scenario in a traditional role-play because she can’t easily walk over to a student and whisper, “Start crying.” That wouldn’t create the same effect, she says. 

Because students know the avatar is not a real client and recognize that the virtual simulation is a safe space, they are also more willing to take risks, Williams adds. A year ago, a student went into the virtual lab and started asking the avatar close-ended questions, which every counseling textbook and instructor advises against. When the student came out 10 minutes later, Williams asked her why she had used those questions. The student replied that she had been curious about what would happen; now she understood that it resulted in the counselor and client going around in circles.

Providing a safe space to role-play often gives counselors-in-training the courage to “mess up,” Williams says. “They can get it wrong — really wrong — and that’s fine because you can stop the simulation, give them feedback, assess how they’re doing, and start it back over and give them an opportunity to practice that skill again.”

Williams still recommends blending traditional role-play with virtual role-play. She uses the traditional method when students are learning the basic counseling skills, such as listening and developing a therapeutic alliance. Then later in the class, she uses virtual simulation to have students practice those skills and experience more complex scenarios such as crisis intervention, a client with psychosis, or couple and family sessions.

Counseling students can also use avatars to learn how to talk with clients’ families and caregivers, she adds. For example, the virtual scenario could involve a school counselor discussing with a child’s parents how the child mentioned having suicidal thoughts. The counselor-in-training can practice having that conversation with the parent and figuring out how to work together to create a safety plan, she explains.

“As educators, we need to be mindful of the students that we’re teaching,” Williams says. “The millennial generation … [is] exposed to a level of technology that is beyond what any of us were exposed to over the course of our lifetime. It’s naïve to think that we can continue to teach effectively these new sets of students and keep their level of excitement and keep their level of enthusiasm without incorporating more exciting technologies in their learning experiences.”

Technologically ethical

Because technologies change so quickly, counselors may find themselves in uncharted waters when debating whether to incorporate things such as virtual reality therapy or mental health apps into their counseling practice.

The first questions Scott typically hears related to counseling and technology revolve around ethics. She acknowledges that a lot of misinformation tends to circulate about using technology within one’s counseling practice, so she advises counselors to continually check the ethics codes of counseling organizations such as ACA and state-level regulations to see if new guidance or rules have been put in place.

The ACA Code of Ethics doesn’t specifically mention chatbots or mental health apps, but as Joy Natwick, ACA’s ethics specialist, points out, the decision to make the code a general set of guidelines and principles for using technology was intentional. “If we were to write a code that specifically names types of technology, it would be out of date before we printed it,” she says.

Natwick encourages counselors to pay special attention to Section H of the ACA ethics code, which discusses distance counseling, technology and social media. “If you feel like you can’t find [an answer in that section], go to the preamble of the code because that’s where the [professional] values are, that’s where the principles [of professional ethical behavior] are,” she advises.

When counselors encounter a new technology or have ethical questions about technology, Natwick suggests they use an ethical decision-making process such as Holly Forester-Miller and Thomas Davis’ “Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making.” (ACA members can access both an infographic and a white paper on the seven-step model at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics/ethical-decision-making.) ACA is also in the process of creating tip sheets to provide practical guidance regarding social media and distance counseling, she adds.

“Technology becomes more and more ingrained in everyday life and, therefore, we as counselors need to keep up,” Natwick says. “We don’t want our profession to get left behind.” She hopes the practical guidelines provided by ACA will serve dual purposes: 1) Encourage those eager to use technologies in counseling to pause and consider the ethical implications, and 2) encourage reluctant counselors to engage more with technology.

Natwick also stresses the importance of competency, privacy and confidentiality when it comes to technology in counseling. “Technology is another way we are supplementing therapy or interacting with our clients,” she says. “[As with] anything we introduce to our clients, we need to really educate them about the risks and benefits.”

Scott is well aware of privacy concerns online, so her informed consent document explicitly details her online and social media policies and lets clients know appropriate ways to contact her. For example, she will not friend clients on Facebook, but they can follow her on Twitter. Clients can also contact her through a form on her website or by posting comments on her blog (which require her approval). She also addresses these issues during her intake session
with clients.

“Tech privacy means something very different in the tech space than it does in the health care space,” Natwick warns. For this reason, she recommends that counselors use technologies created or informed by mental health professionals because these vendors should share similar values with counselors and understand the HIPAA privacy rule. 

Teaming up with tech

Of course, professional counselors can also benefit from technology apart from using it with clients. Scott often turns to Twitter to find information and to get practical suggestions from fellow mental health practitioners by using hashtags such as #CBTworks and #SoMePsychs. For example, she recently saw a Tweet asking other mental health practitioners for their favorite clinical handouts for doing cognitive restructuring with clients with anxiety or depression. Several people replied with resources, including handouts, infographics and links.

Scott discovered MoodKit, the CBT app she uses with clients, through the Academy of Cognitive Therapy Listserv. A quick search on the Listserv led her to a research study on three CBT apps. The study found that MoodKit was effective in decreasing depression and increasing mood.

All of this reveals that technology is changing the way that clients and counselors communicate and form relationships. This suggests that counselors will need to be open to finding new ways to build relationships, and it may mean that some of the initial relationship building will happen in different ways than they are used to, Natwick points out.

Smartphones already have built-in sensors that record users’ movement patterns, social interactions, behaviors, and vocal tone and speed. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, apps in the future may be able to analyze the data to determine a user’s real-time state of mind and alert mental health professionals that help is needed before a crisis occurs.

In fact, AI has already made great strides in medical diagnoses. New Scientist magazine recently reported that human doctors annotated medical records (including text written by the doctors and lab results) to help train AI. This partnership resulted in AI that could diagnose children’s illnesses in unseen cases with 90% to 97% accuracy. 

Fulmer believes a type of symbiotic relationship could also form between counselors and technology. He sees technology such as AI working alongside counselors in the same way that counselors often work in multidisciplinary treatment teams. For example, a chatbot could detect a person’s emotional or behavioral state and provide the counselor with the client’s data and a possible diagnosis.

“Rather than just one counselor meeting [clients] during their initial interview and having to write down a provisional diagnosis, it might be pretty helpful to also meet with an AI and get their input on the diagnosis,” Fulmer says. “That could probably enhance reliability and even validity.”

The partnership aspect is key. Technology is most likely to assist mental health professionals, not replace them. Fulmer is an optimist about the intersection of technology and counseling and believes “that if done the right way, everyone can benefit.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@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.

The pros and cons of contracting with online counseling companies

By Melanie Person January 15, 2019

The day I decided to close my private practice and move to another state was one of both excitement and remorse. I knew that I would be starting from scratch in building a practice in a new region, yet I did not have the time and energy to devote to the marketing and networking that are essential to building a practice. As I scrolled Facebook trying to avoid my grief and frustration, I repeatedly saw ads for online therapy platforms: iCouch, Talkspace, BetterHelp and so on. My interest was piqued. I had a desire to start working with clients again, but I wanted to exert minimal effort in obtaining them. So, I ultimately decided to attempt to supplement my practice by contracting with online counseling providers.

In the 21st century, technology has become a regular and expected part of our daily lives. The convenience it affords can be overwhelming to consider. As a counselor educator and professor in a graduate training program, it is essential that I keep my finger on the pulse of the counseling world, and I believe that technology will continue to be integrated into our work as helping professionals.

I have used technology in my private practice over the years for tasks such as managing client files, sending out reminder texts, recommending apps for mindfulness and other coping strategies, and assessing client satisfaction. Technology has become more integrated into the counseling profession over the past few years, and I cannot envision a future in which this trend does not continue.

But even setting aside our society’s propensity toward all things technological, I decided that contracting with online counseling providers would be the most hassle-free way for me to build up my practice. Here is what I learned.

Selecting a company

Several companies currently provide clients with access to counselors through online chatrooms, messaging forums, and video and phone sessions for a monthly subscription fee. Frequently, these companies will advertise a service that provides subscribers with unlimited access to a counselor for one low monthly charge.

Intrigued by the direction this field is moving, I decided to contact three of the most well-known providers of this service. All of these companies followed up with me immediately, but each had a very different process and focus. One company simply wanted information from me so that I could be registered with its agency, whereas the other two companies provided a screening process and were interested in my competence with providing counseling, both in general and over the internet. I have no desire to make this my full-time practice, so I decided to focus on the company that provided the most rigorous professional assessment process.

One particular piece of screening that I appreciated from the company I chose was the statement that my application would become inactive if I did not respond to homework assignments or provide the required information proving my status as a licensed counseling professional within one week. From my perspective, there was something reassuring and professional about the company taking this stance. Online counseling agencies frequently post job advertisements because they want prospective clients to have a wide variety of clinicians to choose from. This screening statement was one of the first hints I received that this online company valued the client and the integrity of the counseling profession and was not merely trying to add clinician names to its roster.

The ‘interview’ process

Once I settled on going with the company that I felt was most knowledgeable and invested, I began following through on the requests put forth by its management. For example, I answered homework assignments to demonstrate my potential responses to clients. I defended my theoretical orientation and discussed flexibility in that orientation to allow for meeting client needs. I quickly responded to these inquiries and somewhat enjoyed the guided exploration of my values and skills in counseling.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when the company contacted me with the final step of its process: an interview. However, the “interview,” which took place in the virtual space provided by the company, was not what I had been expecting based on my previous interactions. It consisted of a member of the administrative team asking to see my driver’s license, then describing to me how the company complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the ACA Code of Ethics, and avoids working with clients who have intense needs or are actively suicidal. He then proceeded to tell me that if a client were actively suicidal, the company would handle the transition of the client to a modality that would allow the client to access crisis services.

The interviewer had no desire to hear about why I was interested in this modality of counseling, didn’t care about my experiences and, admittedly, was not a clinician himself. After he finished explaining the process of client selection and screening, he asked me to fix a few minor details on my online profile that clients would access and requested that I reupload the photo of my counseling license. Once the video interview ended and we were disconnected, I was reminded that I was joining a business as much as I was joining a service.

Aside from the vetting process that this company requires, I was drawn to this company because it offers scholarships for clients who are struggling financially. As someone who is passionate about client care, I liked this focus on and care for those who are less privileged. So, I assuaged my concerns and continued on.

Getting going

After completing the minor changes and uploading my license for a second time, I received an email indicating that the company was giving my information a final look and would be in contact with me in the next 10 business days to confirm my contractual relationship. So, I was surprised when, three hours later, I received an email welcoming me to the company and asking me to pick a shirt that would later be shipped to me. The email also provided step-by-step directions for opening my profile online so that I could be assigned new clients.

Excited to start this process, I followed the directions and moved my cursor to indicate that I was “open” for new clients. Within three minutes, I was assigned my first new client — an individual struggling with a divorce that was not his choice. I immediately responded to his message, and the messages for that day began to flow. Within 10 minutes of obtaining my first client, I was assigned my second. Within 30 minutes of the second, the third appeared. By the end of the day, I had nine new clients and was sufficiently overwhelmed with the relational requirements of connecting with each of these individuals.

It would be difficult enough to establish therapeutic alliances with nine new clients as they sat directly across from me, but trying to remember details about and establish relationships with these online clients, including some who didn’t provide a name, proved almost too much for me to manage. These clients were able to use initials or pseudonyms instead of their real names, and only one of the nine clients had a picture associated with their profile. I consider myself to have an excellent memory, but I was struggling to connect issues to the names (or, sometimes, just a single initial) provided by the clients.

Suffice it to say, my first day of contracting with this service was exhausting. Of course, I must acknowledge that I am someone who likes to take care of communication with others as soon as possible. As a professor, I have received several rounds of applause over the course of my career for being a faculty member who immediately answers student emails. I gain a sense of accomplishment from an empty inbox and like to keep myself organized. If I can respond to an inquiry quickly, that is one less task nagging me when I slip into bed. I was not prepared for how this personality trait would translate to online counseling. I was going to need to reassess my boundaries and become comfortable with leaving a message unanswered at the end of the day if I was going to survive providing online counseling.

At the start of the second day, I considered quitting, but I weighed the pros and cons of continuing and found that my desire to learn this evolving form of counseling outweighed my desire to throw in the towel. This discernment led to a renewed commitment and a plan of action to create manageable expectations for myself and my clients.

Establishing boundaries

The first boundary I enacted for myself was switching off my “available to new clients” sign. After giving it much consideration, I determined that I could not successfully provide quality counseling services to more than five clients through the online service while also trying to get tenure and maintain my small in-person private practice (let alone raise my two young children). As soon as I switched off my availability, a wave of relief washed over me.

Now I had the task of managing the nine clients I had already been assigned. Three of those clients have not sent me any messages, meaning they have not required my attention (they remain on my roster though, indicating that they are still paying the monthly subscription fee). So, my job boiled down to managing the six clients who were actively engaged.

In attempting to find my footing, I inquired about the willingness of each client to meet for a video session. This was one of the smartest moves I could have made. I found that five of the six were excited and desired to meet through video. The other client had signed up for this service specifically to avoid the face-to-face contact. She remained content with message counseling.

Meeting the five clients individually through the use of video sessions allowed me to connect information to a face rather than just to a name or an initial. In turn, this solidified my conceptualization and understanding of each client. Plus, it was far easier and more time efficient to collaborate via voice and video rather than the pingpong of written words. Once I met with my clients through video, I was more comfortable and relaxed in this new format.

After limiting the number of clients I was willing to work with through this medium, I next needed to identify a schedule for checking and responding to messages. I looked at some of the online forums the company offered and read how their different providers were managing their schedules. I learned quickly that most of these providers had set hours and times that they would check messages and respond to clients. Some providers chose to check twice a day, whereas others indicated that they checked and responded every two to three days. This variability of schedules increases the need for any prospective provider to communicate upfront with their clients about what they can expect from the provider and the online service. This approach allows clients to find an online counselor who is available to the degree that they want. It also helps to prevent against a provider not meeting client expectations.

One of the hardest parts of learning this system for me has been receiving an email that a client has shared a message and not being immediately drawn to check and respond to that message. I was made aware from the outset that this is not a crisis service and that clients know that each counselor has his or her own method of responding to clients. Honoring this and not having unrealistic expectations of your ability to communicate with clients is imperative to being successful with these companies.

Six months after sending my first message to my first client, I am very thankful that I joined the site I selected. I have been able to engage with clients again and have made a fair amount of money working at my own pace and time. I would recommend this avenue for counselors looking to take on new clients and who have the freedom and flexibility to work with these contracting companies. Although the pay is poor and the process new, the experience has been more than I had hoped for.

Take-home lessons

1) Research and read reviews of the companies you are considering joining. There is a wide range of understanding and dedication to the field of counseling among these online services. Finding one that aligns with your view of the counseling profession is essential to successful practice.

2) Know your limits. Before accepting new clients, decide how much time you would like to devote to this type of counseling and have a manageable schedule and plan for responding to messages.

3) Find new ways to develop relationships. It was helpful for me to use the video sessions as a bridge in learning this new modality while holding on to a form of counseling that is comfortable for me.

4) Figure out how you will relay your commitment to the site to your clients so they will have realistic expectations of how available and responsive you will be.

5) Use the support systems found in many of these companies. Often, these companies will provide forums and discussion boards so that providers can connect and consult with one another. Embrace this new online professional community that you are joining and allow yourself to learn from others who have been providing these services for a while.

6) Be realistic about how much you will receive in reimbursement from these companies. The company I joined paid $10 for every 1,000 words communicated by me or my client (video and phone sessions are counted as 50 words per minute). It is also imperative that you identify the company’s monthly maximum reimbursement per client. The company I joined stop reimbursing after 12,000 words a month. If you are not mindful of these limits, you will be providing a lot of support and counseling without receiving any reimbursement.

7) Don’t forget that counseling is counseling, whether it is happening live or through some form of technology. Although the essential skills of counseling are still relevant in this form of counseling, they need to be modified and conceptualized slightly differently to be successful with this modality. For example, I learned to withhold confrontations until the clients demonstrated a willingness to be challenged. Because the therapeutic relationship can be more difficult to monitor through messaging, it is imperative that you learn how to check your clients’ readiness to be challenged. In this form of counseling, it is very easy for your clients to click a button and find a new counselor. This can be great for clients, but it can leave many counselors with unanswered questions about what happened and where their clients went.

 

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Melanie Person is an assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Gonzaga University. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a licensed mental health counselor. Contact her at person@gonzaga.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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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.

 

Superheroes and play therapy: The perfect imaginary combination

By Jetaun Bailey and Tonya Davis July 9, 2018

Superheroes have a profound influence on American culture. Recently, Marvel Comics’ Black Panther came to life on the movie screen. It appears the movie had a twofold impact.

First, it brought heroic life to a seemingly little-known character. Second, unlike most other big-screen superhero movies, Black Panther placed value on social consciousness, awareness, community, family and pride. It broke boundaries that went beyond simply box-office sales, introducing a male of presumably African descent as the superhero. During the movie’s opening weekend, many news outlets showed young African American children wearing their dashikis as a symbol of pride in the African ancestry depicted in the movie.

As a culture, we hold our superheroes in high esteem, even if they are fictional characters. Thanks to Black Panther, many African American boys can identify with a superhero for the first time. This experience has likely heightened the imaginations of many African American boys as they imitate characters from Black Panther in their play.

Escaping to the imaginary worlds of our superheroes seemingly has therapeutic powers. Author and blogger Remez Sasson describes imagination as the mental ability to formulate an image that is not tangible through our five senses. For young children, an even deeper escape possibly occurs when watching these types of movies. The imagination is a powerful tool for children, as reported by Patti Teel in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine. When children imagine, they can visualize their heart’s desire, thus welcoming it into their reality.

 

Reaching beyond traditional play therapy

The therapeutic power of imagination is also evident in various therapy practices, specifically play therapy. According to “Helping a Child Through Play Therapy” by Jane Framingham, adults mistakenly think that child’s play is solely for fun and games or to occupy time. Unbeknownst to these adults, through creative and imaginative play, children are developing cognitively and emotionally while improving their self-worth, positive self-image, and communication and coping skills. For those reasons, play can be therapeutic in helping children overcome challenges that might inhibit developmental growth.

To tap into children’s imaginations and gain deeper understanding of their problems, play therapists are reaching beyond traditional play therapy tools such as sand trays, crayons, paints, animals, toys and dolls. Technology appears to have revolutionized the art of play therapy, thus making it easily accessible to counselors. This can be especially important for school counselors, who work in settings in which the counseling process is often limited because of the other administrative duties assigned to them.

Technology-based programs such as Marvel’s Superhero Avatar Creator and DC Super Friends Super Hero Creator represent the infusion of electronic media into play therapy. Based on “The iPad Playroom: A Therapeutic Technique” by Marilyn Snow and colleagues, the infusion of technology increases the imagination and creativity of the child by allowing the child to create media, pictures and other artwork while the therapist is present, either in conjunction with or separate from the therapist. For example, many applications are available to aid children in fueling their imaginations to create family dynamics or events through drawing and colors that possibly hold symbolism to their presenting problems. This invites the opportunity for metaphors to help solve real-world problems.

 

An ideal therapeutic method

This method of integrating superheroes through a technology approach in play therapy potentially could be an ideal therapeutic method of working with children, especially African American males, in the school setting. It appears to offer a nonintrusive approach for getting students involved in counseling because it integrates technology and play without asking probing questions.

As former school counselors, we have been disturbed by the alarming rates of African American boys being suspended because of perceived aggressive behaviors. Through our lenses, we have seen many of these students struggling with low-self-esteem or low self-worth. Ironically, sometimes these issues are not apparent through traditional presentations such as withdrawing or isolating.

The adjustment between school and family cultures has proved problematic for African American males regarding understanding their importance and worth. This likely causes tension in the school setting, resulting in aggression. These adjustment issues, or inability to navigate from one situation to another, is better known as code-switching.

Eric Deggans, in “Learning How to Code-Switch: Humbling, But Necessary,” describes code-switching as beyond the exchange of two languages in a conversation. But in today’s diverse society, the term’s deeper meaning is shifting between different cultures to move through life’s conversations. Deggans, an African American man, implies that code-switching is an essential tool for African Americans to adjust culturally. Therefore, African American males are expected to recognize one set of rules in one setting and understand another set of rules in another setting while maintaining their identity.

 

Uses with a student

We have sought to address these adjustment issues with our African American male clients through the use of play therapy methods. Using the power of imagination in play therapy allows them to foster development and problem-solve issues that have been hindering their overall academic and emotional growth. In one case, Marvel’s Superhero Avatar Creator  was used with an African American male student who was having adjustment issues at school that produced aggressive behaviors both at school and at home. Although the nature of the school setting did not permit long-term therapy, this short-term approach showed significant positive results.

This student created a superhero avatar over the course of four sessions. During the creating phase, the student used his imagination to create a creature that had similar features and skin color to his own, thus solidifying the importance of identity and connection to the creature. Allowing the student autonomy in creating his creature aided in establishing the therapeutic relationship.

The student was able to arrange the way therapy was directed as the therapeutic relationship was established. Through the various stages of play therapy, from gaining insight to reorientation or reeducation, the therapeutic process became a playground in which the student could live out his imagination through his superhero in a way that was vivid and emotionally alive. This experience paved the way for deeper understanding of how the student perceived his school family in relation to his peers, faculty and staff, and his actual family. Through incorporation of a client-centered approach to play therapy, this student showed significant growth in his overall development and was thus able to transfer those skills (i.e., code-switching) between school and family relationships.

Once significant progress was made with the student, his parents were incorporated in one play therapy session. The student’s father decided to create a superhero avatar to bring life to his perceived role as the family protector. In retrospect, through this play therapy family activity, the father could see how his family viewed his role and their individual roles within the family.

The play therapy sessions, infused with the technology of creating superheroes, helped the student use his imagination to bring to life his own unique story and identity. In superhero stories, superheroes conquer their adversaries while overcoming their adversities. The ending of this student’s story depicted similar results.

This form of play therapy is a nonintrusive method that renders promising results by not asking direct questions, but rather allowing students to self-express through play. As such, we do not believe that the traditional mode of counseling would have achieved the same impact on this child’s growth and development. This lends support to the importance of expressive therapy for children, particularly African American boys. Expressive therapies can help children find their voices, especially through play-based techniques using superhero avatars.

 

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Jetaun Bailey, a former school counselor, is a certified school counselor, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University. Contact Jetaun at Jetaun.bailey@aamu.edu or baileyjetaun@hotmail.com.

 

Tonya Davis, a former school counselor, is a nationally certified school psychologist, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University.

 

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Related reading: See the upcoming September issue of Counseling Today magazine for an in-depth cover article on play therapy.

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Thanatechnology – Grief and loss in a digital world

By Cheryl Fisher June 8, 2018

Thanatechnology: Any kind of technology that can be used to deal with death, dying, grief, loss and illness.

 

Kelly (an alias), an eighth-grader, sits with her friends in the school auditorium as her principal calls out the names of each of her classmates who were killed in the recent shooting. To honor the lives of these young people, the school is hosting a remembrance ceremony. As tears run down her face, Kelly huddles close to her schoolmates and clicks away on her phone posting messages on several social network sites and a memorial site that she and her friends created. A text message pops up from a boy she met on one of the sites. He is a survivor of a school shooting that happened a couple of years ago — he understands.

Tony’s (alias) phone vibrates, rousing him from his slumber. He looks at the clock – it’s 2 a.m. He has to be up for school in just a few hours. He squints, trying to read the alert on his phone. Another teenager has died from drug overdose. He heaves a mournful sigh and turns on the bedside lamp. His phone begins to blow up with social media posts. The deceased didn’t attend his school but is related to his girlfriend’s best friend. Tony attempts to return to sleep, but he keeps thinking about the teenager [and] wondering why it happened.

Without a doubt, the youth of today are often exposed to significant and traumatic losses. Traditionally, we have marked death with rituals such as funerals and memorials and grieved with the support of counseling, faith communities and neighbors. In more recent years, technology has provided additional ways to remember and mourn, such as creating online memorials, seeking distant or virtual grief counseling and connecting with family, friends and even strangers without geographical limitations. It erases time and distance and allows for virtual experiences and expressions that promote a narrative that lives forever.

Digital Presence and Youth

In Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe, researchers Kathleen R. Gilbert and Michael Massimi observe that digital technology can “bring people together for social support, provide information, and offer a venue for conducting grief work such as telling stories or building digital memorials.”

In another section of the book, researcher Carla Sofka writes that young people are even more likely to seek grief support online. Sofka explains that the internet, social media and other digital platforms are where younger generations are most comfortable because they provide opportunities for social interaction; a sense of independence and privacy; the ability to express and form their own identity; a sense of community that includes those that are marginalized; and instant alerts and communication. All of these elements allow youth to seek and find like-minded communities that can provide immediate support and strategies for coping with myriad life issues — including death and dying, and grief and loss.

 

Social Interaction

Online bereavement forums and chat rooms provide a sense of social connection with users. Sites such as Caring Bridge allow multiple users to maintain a virtual journal offering information and capturing narratives that are accessible to members. Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram create spaces where youth can just “hang out.” Video calling technology such as FaceTime and Skype bridge the distance between users and promote interaction and communication. Additionally, grief counseling may be offered via video, phone, chat or email formats.

Independence and Sense of Privacy

Teens turn to technology to carve out a private space for self-expression. However, research indicates that internet use often provides the illusion of anonymity, which may encourage a false sense of privacy. The struggle for privacy is nothing new: The tension between privacy and personal expression has existed between teens and parents for decades. In It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd*, principal researcher at Microsoft Research notes that social media introduced a new dimension to this age-old power struggle. Instead of worrying about what teens wear outside, parents are concerned about what pictures teens are posting about what they wear outside.

[*boyd prefers to spell her name with lowercase letters.]

“Although teens grapple with managing their identity and navigating youth-centric communities while simultaneously maintaining spaces for intimacy, they do so under the spotlight of a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology,” writes boyd.

Yet, online spaces allow for exploration of feelings and thoughts, examination of death anxiety, and expression of grief and loss. For example, a 14 year- old client crafted an entire mix of music and prose around the complicated emotions she experienced related to the death of her estranged father who had abused her as a little girl. Using an alias, she posted the eulogy online and watched as strangers connected with her, validating her feelings and experience.

Expression and Influence of Identity Formation

The internet provides creative space for expressing grief and honoring loved ones. Sites such as KIDSAID.com, offer children the opportunity to connect, interact and creatively express their grief. In addition to expressive sites and online memorial services such as Legacy, Remembered.com and Your Tribute provide an unfettered opportunity to honor loss, especially for those who are marginalized or disenfranchised. The use of letters, photos and sound provide rich and detailed memorials that allow users to express their grief, absorb their loss and ultimately move forward.

Sense of Community

Blogs provide a venue to capture experiences and to cultivate topic-based virtual communities. Boyd suggests that these constructed networks serve as a public place to interact with real and imagined communities, thus satisfying a desire to be part of a broader world.

Instant Alerts

Online communication is often in real time. Twitter, Snapchat and a variety of other digital sites offer instant notifications and ongoing engagement. Technology allows users to gather multiple streams of almost instantaneous information from afar. For example, recently I was at a social gathering where a young woman, glued to her phone, was continuously texting. At one point I interjected, “Is everything alright?” She looked up and shook her head. “No, I have a friend who was just in a car accident and the medics are transporting her to shock trauma. Her parents are on their way to the hospital — but no one thinks she’s going to make it.”

The accident occurred in another state, yet this young woman was experiencing the event minute by minute via her phone messaging.

There are numerous attractive features to thanatechnology. Information is persistent and endures. There is a sense of immortality and legacy when a person’s comments, photos and work is posted in cyberspace. It is visible to infinite numbers of individuals. It is spreadable, and with one repost or share, hundreds more are invited into our experience. It is searchable. Just yesterday someone emailed me after reading my article on pet loss and grief. She had been Googling information about pet loss and my article popped up. I was able to provide her with additional support resources.

While there are many helpful aspects of using technology for grief support, there are some serious causes for pause. Are the online interactions healthy? Who is actually participating in the network communities? Are youth oversharing personal information while in a vulnerable state? How pervasive are social divisions and are they perpetuated in the participating forums?

Clinicians, parents and educators must be digitally literate and provide opportunities for genuine face to face connection while acknowledging the cyberworld of teens. Using technology during this very vulnerable time can provide tremendous support and healing, but it may pose risks. Counselors have the responsibility to help youth develop the skills to navigate technology in a way that creates a safe environment for their grief experience and promotes bereavement support.

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy: and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@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.