Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help.
Mention counselling and most people have an idea of what it looks like. Many have experienced it: two people in the same room, the client sharing their problems by vocalising them, client and counsellor working together to find a way through.
In light of the current Coronavirus situation and the latest public health advice, the ‘in the same room’ aspect looks set to move rapidly from ‘not advisable’ to ‘absolute no-no’. Meanwhile increased social isolation, while critical for physical health, is likely to lead to more people experiencing emotional difficulties or even mental health crisis.
Fortunately in these changing times, the ways to access support are becoming more diverse. So if you’re in therapy and moving to alternative services, or if you’re considering accessing counselling for the first time, what do you need to know?
I wonder why we assume that ‘in the room’ is always best. Is it more than the fact that that’s just how it’s always been? (After all, there were no webcams when psychoanalysis began…) Of course, there are advantages to the traditional model in terms of human connection: we can read body language and non-verbal cues. Sometimes the physical space can feel more secure; the therapist can make sure the room is private and comfortable and this puts the client at ease. Once the door closes, it’s easy to tell that you have the therapist’s full attention. That’s less easy (though not impossible) to convey on the phone or online.
However, there are a great many advantages to accessing counselling via your phone, video call, or an online chat service. The service can be accessed from anywhere with a phone or internet connection (though a good therapist will want to make sure you are in a safe, confidential place). It can be accessed at different times, too – some online services are open for longer hours than traditional counselling venues – which often fits in better with work and family commitments. People who have health or mobility issues or can’t leave the house for other reasons – self-isolating during a pandemic, for example! – don’t have to miss out on help. Often it’s lower cost (or even free); therapist overheads can be lower and they may pass these savings on. It can be quick or even instant – GriefChat, for example, connects bereaved people instantly to a qualified grief counsellor, for free, 9am-9pm Monday-Friday (www.griefchat.co.uk).
On the subject of online chat, or email therapy, there’s another advantage: some people prefer to write down their problems rather than speak about them (and there’s evidence it’s just as effective).
In terms of a video call, as long as there is a secure system being used and a stable internet connection, it really can very quickly become as effective as being in the room with your counsellor. You can see each other’s faces and read each other’s responses; you can make that human connection. A counselling phone call, skilfully handled, can be a space for meaningful, active listening. Email interactions can give time and opportunity to focus and reflect on the words and emotions being expressed.
There’s actually nothing, apart from physical location, that’s remote about remote counselling. There’s never been a better time to give it a try.