Seeking out therapy in these busy times may seem like one step too many. Self-care is often something we consider after we’ve taken care of daily needs, the bills, the boss and everything else.
What if you had an option that didn’t require you to travel to an office, sit in a waiting room and meet with a counselor in person? The world of virtual appointments cuts out those steps.
These days, there are many different online and mobile options available to you. We spoke with Amy Cirbus, Ph.D., a licensed mental health counselor specializing in relationships, women’s health and wellness, and young adulthood, to better understand when virtual therapy may be the right fit for you.
Cirbus is director of clinical content at Talkspace, a virtual therapy platform Community Health System has partnered with for employees. This is part of the free, well-being support offered to Community’s 8,900 employees to provide more convenient access to mental health services — especially for clinical caregivers putting in 12-hour shifts.
Talkspace is focused on making quality behavioral health accessible and affordable, connecting those in need to thousands of licensed mental health counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists through an easy-to-use, secure and private mobile platform.
Cirbus oversees all of the clinical content that’s delivered directly to Talkspace users as well as the organizations Talkspace partners with. She’s also a counseling psychologist and sees clients on the platform, helping her understand exactly what the experience is like for the patient.
What makes this option different?
Counselor Amy Cirbus: Like traditional, in-person counseling, online therapy pairs you with a licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health professional who will help you understand and work toward overcoming your struggles.
There are some specialized options, such as couples or treatment for teens, as well as psychiatry services, but the process to sign up will take you through an initial questionnaire to help identify the right counselor for your needs.
In this case, a virtual option can be easier to access anywhere, anytime, in an environment with which you’re most comfortable. And many virtual therapy platforms offer the choice between written or audio messaging and live video chat. Users in Talkspace can send their mental health providers unlimited text, pictures and audio messages. As with traditional therapy, your discussion is kept private and confidential.
A key to virtual care is that it offers the benefits of therapy without having to figure out scheduling. You and your dedicated therapist will correspond in your secure, private [virtual] room, during times that work best for you.
You may find it’s most convenient to write your thoughts down in the quiet before you go to sleep. Or, it may be best for you to write throughout your work day as you’re moving through specific thoughts and feelings that you want to convey. You communicate when it’s best for you, and know that your therapist will read and respond to your thoughts on a daily basis.
Another benefit: you can communicate in any way that feels right. In a virtual platform, like Talkspace, you can write, record audio or video messages, or schedule a live video session. Each of these formats has its own advantages and benefits. Many people use a combination of these, creating a unique and dynamic therapy experience.
As a provider, I see the significant impact this kind of access has for my clients. They no longer have to wait a week between sessions and remember their distressing moments — or successes! — in order to report on them during a weekly in-person session. Instead, they can come to the therapy room and express themselves in real time. When I read through the room, I’m able to see exactly what’s happening and what a client was thinking, feeling and experiencing at the time. This has a powerful effect on my ability to help.
What’s the benefit of talking to a therapist?
Cirbus: A person doesn’t need to be in crisis before they seek out therapy. It can help with the pressures of daily life or with those past issues that keep sneaking up on you. Whether online or in person, primarily a mental health professional will help you do the following:
Share your thoughts and feelings with someone in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
Understand your feelings and learn what emotions are common for a condition or circumstances.
Get immediate support in cases where you need help more urgently.
Address deep-seated issues over the course of time.
Head off growing issues before they become crises.
Create a game plan and set goals for the future, and help keep you accountable.
Learn new coping skills and strategies to use over the course of your lifetime
Get access to other mental health resources as needed.
Speaking with a therapist provides perspective and skilled guidance that you can’t get from any other source.
What if I need medication as well as talk therapy?
Cirbus: Talkspace also provides psychiatry services and prescription fulfillment much like telehealth providers do. But not all online therapy options do have this service, so it’s good to check or ask if the therapist or counselor is willing to coordinate with a medical doctor or primary care provider who can prescribe mental health medications such as anti-depressants.
What are some of the reasons people don’t try therapy?
Cirbus: Many people come from families or cultures that don’t talk about mental health, or use labels such as “crazy” for emotional turmoil. Often it’s seen as a virtue and strength to ignore emotional or mental health and power through work and family responsibilities on your own. Nearly half of Americans do not seek mental health help, according to the Mental Health Million project, which surveyed 45,000 people. Here are common reasons people cited for not seeking help when they need it:
Misunderstanding about how therapy and mental health treatments work and their effectiveness. Because so few people talk about their therapy experiences, most people don’t know how it works.
Lack of access in terms of expense, location and transportation; virtual therapy can help with those last two access problems.
Negative stigmas, stereotypes, labels, judgments and prejudices can lead to discrimination; this includes shaming yourself about seeking out mental health services.
Confusion about the options open to you can hinder seeking help; many regions have a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) branch that’s available to help you understand the resources available to you.
Not being aware of the need for mental health solutions; it can be difficult to see ourselves accurately and to accept when our friends and family offer their insight. Managing your own emotional challenges often requires a trained guide.
Fear of the unknown; it can be tough to work through who to see, how to make an appointment, and what to say, but mostly people worry about what it will be like. For the majority of Talkspace users, this is their first time trying therapy. Being able to reach out and try it in the comfort of their own home, using an app and a pace that feels less overwhelming helps remove the resistance and barrier of fear.
My employer offers therapy as part of our benefits package. Can I trust it?
Cirbus: In cases where mental health options are provided by your employer, people will often have concerns about their employer knowing they’re seeing a therapist and about whether or not their information is being shared with their employer.
Your employer should be contracting with a provider that’s fully compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This means that your information, conversations with your therapist and your data are always kept safe and confidential, even from your employer.
Any information that is reported back to a company or organization is in aggregated form and adheres to strict HIPAA privacy laws. Your employer does not know who specifically is using the benefit, and has no ability to see any information that would be identifiable.
What’s the most important thing to know about choosing a therapist?
Cirbus: Be prepared to share what your preferences are and what you need out of therapy. In many cases, before you get started with someone, the virtual program will have you do an initial assessment to identify your needs and if you have particular things you’d prefer with a therapist, such as their cultural background, gender, age and experience. Your level of comfort is essential for your success.
In Talkspace, you will be able to read the bios of each therapist option that’s provided to you, and hear a little bit about them in their own words via a recorded video. And, after the first few weeks, if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, you can easily request to transfer to a new therapist that better suits you.
How will I know if I’ve chosen the right therapist or if therapy is working?
Cirbus: While many sessions will bring up uncomfortable feelings, you should feel understood and listened to. Certainly after a few sessions you should begin to see improvements or have a plan of action about how you’ll be able to resolve your difficulties.
It can take time for changes to occur, but you want to feel safe, supported and encouraged in the work that you’re doing. Having a goal in place guides the sessions and is an important part of treatment. The relationship with your therapist, however, is the core of your success.
You’ll know you’re in the right place if you feel that your therapist understands your challenges, can reflect back accurately what they hear you saying, and you feel respected and understood for your unique strengths as well as current challenges. You’ll want to come away with tools to help manage ongoing stresses in your life.
What are the top issues people are struggling with over the last year?
Cirbus: Anxiety and depression are regularly at the top of the list, and that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. Over the last year, relationship difficulties have climbed the list of common issues our Talkspace users are discussing or seeking therapy for.
It would not be exaggeration to say that coping with the pandemic has been an extended traumatic experience. Trauma affects us at a deeply physical level, making us jumpy, sleepless, depressed or anxious, or causing us to react to emotional experiences with numbness or unusual intensity.
Whether you’re struggling with trauma from the last year, or other traumas such as emotional abuse or a life-threatening event, seeking help from a professional mental health provider is one way to care for yourself.
The pandemic, and the subsequent stressors and emotional turmoil that it has wrought, continues. But gaining the support and treatment you need is easier than ever. Please don’t wait until you are in extreme crisis. Reach out and try virtual care to see if it’s right for you.
If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately, seek medical attention immediately or call 911.
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