A client talks with a smiling counselor via teleconference on a laptop.
A client talks with a smiling counselor via teleconference on a laptop.

Telehealth in Mental Health Counseling: Benefits and Barriers

In 1959, the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Psychiatric Institute began using two-way closed-circuit televisions to provide group therapy and consultations in the field of psychiatry. The concept was initially expanded to connect only universities and medical facilities but has grown into a wide-scale, web-based and effective approach to mental health care and counseling.

As technology becomes both more sophisticated and more accessible to the public, the opportunities for remote mental health services have multiplied. Continuing education training and advanced degree programs have embraced this innovation, and counselors now routinely connect with clients near and far without leaving home. Telehealth in mental health counseling can help mental health professionals stay abreast of new and emerging ways to deliver services.

Telehealth in Mental Health Counseling: How It Works

With advancements in technology and increasing attention to self-care, clients now have the option of receiving counseling remotely by either video conferencing or telephone. Email, text messaging or real-time chatting with a counselor can also serve clients while providing additional control over their virtual presence. 

Telehealth in mental health counseling is, in many ways, very much like the definition of in-person counseling. At the initial meeting, the counselor provides information about responsibilities, privacy and counseling costs while the client shares general information, personal experiences and family history. At this time, client goals may also be identified. Subsequent visits find both counselors and clients discussing ongoing concerns and evaluating progress, the difference being that they are interacting with the use of a sophisticated device in two different locations. 

Depending on the technology, either party may initiate the connection at a specified time, both having prepared for the meeting by checking the internet connection as well as video and audio feed. Some applications provide built-in timers to alleviate the distraction of watching the clock. 

Telehealth: Benefits and Barriers

Whether remote learning or remote working, advanced technology enabling virtual conversations through text message, email or video calling has revolutionized how the world stays connected. However, as in most digital applications and interactions, overcoming limitations to create smooth and secure communication requires attention and intentional effort. As such, there are many potential unique benefits and barriers to telehealth in mental health counseling. 

Benefits of Telehealth in Mental Health Counseling

The benefits of telehealth in mental health counseling can include:

  • Reduced transportation and childcare costs
  • Less chance of the spread of disease from in-person interactions
  • Increased access to services and connections for people with disabilities and those who live in remote locations

Technology in counseling, however, is beneficial to counselors and their clients in more specific ways.

Benefits for Counselors and Clients

The financial and logistical benefits of virtual sessions serve both clinicians and clients well. And during times of local, national or global crisis, the support of a counselor may be vital, making access to telehealth services especially important.

Telehealth Can Lower the Cost of Care 

Telecommunication has allowed businesses to significantly lower their office space and overhead expenses. For mental health care providers who serve marginalized and remote populations and clients with little or no insurance coverage, passing these savings on in the form of lower fees can make a crucial difference to people who may otherwise not be able to secure care.

Telehealth Provides a Safe “Port-of-Entry”

Unfortunately, people may mask or hide mental health issues because of negative public perception. Surveys conducted by McKinsey and Co. reveal that the stigma attached to these invisible illnesses causes a serious paradox. When people are most vulnerable and in need, stigma can stop them from pursuing counseling, potentially exacerbating the issue.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of telehealth is that it offers complete privacy from the very first step on the path to healing. When even the thought of being seen in a clinical waiting room creates a barrier to seeking help, meeting a licensed professional without leaving home can open doors to finding answers.

Overcoming the Challenges of Telehealth in Mental Health Counseling

Potential barriers to effective telehealth in mental health counseling include:

Privacy Concerns

Reports of hacking, internet spying, stealing and trolling cause a well-deserved mistrust of virtual interactions. Nevertheless, clients have the right to expect the highest level of privacy and discretion. Counselors must therefore incorporate sophisticated, safe software into their virtual sessions that can encrypt data and offer secure connections.

Compliance and Location

Many state licensing boards have strict rules that require that both the clinician and the client be physically located in the state where the clinician’s license is valid during counseling. Anticipating travel plans and tracking appropriate state licensing guidelines are key to remaining compliant while providing and receiving services.

Digital Quirks and Mishaps

Even the most conscientiously planned virtual sessions can be hijacked by internet glitches. Broken connections and video interruptions can invade meaningful conversations and disrupt key moments. Attentive counselors should assume the professional responsibility to be tech-savvy. 

Detecting Non-Verbal Cues

Although spoken words provide a significant amount of critical client information, the whole body sends messages that can often go unobserved when connecting through a screen. Effective counselors should focus on the shifts in a client’s tone of voice, speech tempo and even breathing patterns, as well as subtle changes in facial expressions, eye contact and arm and hand gestures that may be caught by the camera.

Strengthen Your Counseling Skills With a Master’s Degree from Walsh University

The demand for counselors is on the rise as more people recognize the need for mental health care. If you are interested in supporting individuals, families and communities as they navigate difficult personal and professional issues, consider Walsh University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program. Find out how you can develop the skills to meet the mental health needs of diverse populations with compassion and dignity.

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