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Therapists moved online to keep counseling in pandemic

Chuying Huo/YJI

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the way many people do their jobs shifted dramatically, moving from an office environment to working from home and relying on video calls. 

For some this was an unexpected success, cutting down on commuting time and adding time with family. But for others, the change was harder.

Therapists, counselors and other mental health professionals who value personal connections with clients sometimes find online interactions challenging. Making the switch comes down to a need to adapt rather than a desire to work remotely.

In a series of interviews, Youth Journalism International asked mental health professionals how their jobs changed with the pandemic.

“The obvious was to move to telephone and online counseling, which isn’t something I often do unless the young person sort of severely suffers from social anxiety and we always aim to move towards face-to-face counseling,” said Sara Sirati, a psychotherapist in private practice in Cardiff, Wales.  

But Sirati also said remote sessions can be a benefit.

Some jobs are easier to move online than others. (Katrina Machetta/YJI)

“For some people, it’s actually much easier not to be there in person, especially if you are really used to communicating on social media,” said Sirati.

But this is not the case for everyone. Sirati said it is important to make sure that the client has a comfortable space for meeting online.

“We need to think of, if everyone’s isolating together as a big family, we don’t want anyone to listen to the conversation, ensuring confidentiality,” Sirati said.

An investigation by the World Health Organization showed the importance of mental health services and how vital it was for them to adapt to working online. 

According to the WHO, the covid-19 pandemic disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, while the demand for mental health care increased. 

Being stuck at home raises problems with people accessing public mental health facilities, said Laura Reed, a counselor at England’s Lincoln College. She also pointed out how clients with learning disabilities or cognitive impairment issues do not understand why they cannot access these places. 

Michelle Collins

Michelle Collins, a trauma counselor in private practice in Houston, Texas said that tele-help has opened up a new realm.

Adult sessions can be just as effective online, Collins said, but providing services for children, such as play therapy, is a lot harder to do through a screen. 

Sirati explained how the problems of online counseling can be overcome.

“I have been having conversations about what the young person needs, what I can offer to put them at ease, you know, what are their worries, what are their anxieties about having online counseling,” Sirati said.

Addressing that openly and honestly helps, she said.

Dedicated mental health professionals trying to meet society’s needs are likely to face such challenges for awhile, at least until there is a widely used vaccine or cure for covid-19.

This story was reported by Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada;  Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas and Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales.  It was written by Daisy Wigg in Dartford, England. Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas made the photograph and Chuying Huo created the cover image.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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