How online counselling is changing mental health support

Diana J. Smith

At least one in five Canadians are likely living with at least one common mental illness according to a 2017 report by the Mental Health Association of Canada.

Canada was thrown into a life of social distancing and quarantine when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. The government mandated physical distancing, even for medical examinations and treatments.

Mental health providers were quick to move many therapy and counselling services online via audio or video sessions. 

Since then, there has been an increase in online counselling offerings and their popularity.

Kevin Alderson, an active psychologist and professor emeritus of counselling psychology from the University of Calgary, says that online counselling is not new for him. Even before the pandemic, he would counsel clients online while on vacation in Mexico. But at the time, people weren’t the biggest fans.

“It used to be that I didn’t know of anyone who really wanted online counselling,” he said. “Now it’s the case that many do because they’ve seen the advantages.” 

Alderson explained that online counselling has made attending sessions considerably easier for patients.

“You can be at home any time of day, you don’t have to go out in the snow and drive somewhere and put your life at risk because of the weather conditions,” he said. 

In addition to the convenience provided by online sessions, the increased access to services has helped, according to Alderson.

The Mental Health Association of Canada (MHCC) found in a 2017 report that less than 10 per cent of patients with severe mental health problems had access to in-person therapy.

“A lot of people have not had ready access to services. I think it’s opened up new opportunities for people,” Alderson said.

However, the switch to online has still had its drawbacks.

“There’s privacy concerns,” he said. “I’ve had clients sit in cars, I can tell it’s cold, and they’re sitting in their car having a session because they don’t have any other private space.”

Chris Davis, a licensed marriage and family therapist, added on regarding the issue with technical difficulties. 

“I’ve been in sessions where you’re at this crucial point, and then something goes wrong, the video goes out, and you have to restart,” he said. “That’s very frustrating not only for therapists, but for clients as well.”

He continued, saying that online sessions can also make it difficult for clients and therapists to form a connection.

“I’ve had a couple of [clients] who, I don’t know if it would have been better in person, but we just couldn’t click,” he said. “And I think some of that did have to do with being virtual.”

Despite the obstacles, Davis has successfully continued working with clients digitally and even has clients that he’s only ever talked to over the phone.

“I have a person who I have never seen his face. I’ve just talked to him on the phone from day one when the pandemic hit,” he said. “But it’s been a good connection.”

The MHCC’s report also found that one in five Canadians were likely living with at least one common mental illness.

Despite this, stigma around mental illness has been around for years.

However, Chris Davis

“Maybe it could be the domino effect, right? You have more access, more people coming to therapy because of that,” he said. “So kind of trickle downhill, you have, perhaps, mental illness becoming less stigmatized.”

When asked whether they thought online counselling would stay or fade away, both Alderson and Davis believed it would stick around.

“It’s just so convenient that I think we’re going to see an increase in people that want online counselling,” Alderson said.

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