Counseling services have historically been conducted in a private room with the client and counselor face-to-face.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Here at Trinity, we made the informed decision to close our doors to in-person services on March 18, 2020. For the following 11 months, we were forced to conduct all our services virtually using a telehealth platform from our homes. Once we were back in the office, we had many clients excited to return, initially wearing masks in session. However, we had just as many clients still highly reluctant to return in-person. To this day, there are a few clients that I met, counseled, and discharged who I have never actually met! It’s been a crazy time for clients and counselors alike.
And now, with the world (mostly) back to “normal,” we find some clients continuing with virtual sessions, and a few new clients asking if virtual sessions are still on option? Not surprisingly, there are many counseling practices that have remained entirely virtual. For practice owners, there are some advantages to moving to an entirely virtual practice. But what about clients? How are virtual sessions different - if at all - than sitting face-to-face with your counselor?
Let’s consider a few features of both options. First, two positive aspects associated with virtual sessions:
1) Convenience There is no doubt that the convenience of engaging with your counselor from your own home is appealing. No commute time, no traffic, no gas usage, and the most efficient use of time. For many clients, these are some significant pros to virtual sessions. The ability to log on from work during their lunch hour, for example, precludes the need to commit to an evening appointment, away from their family.
2) Safety and Comfort Many clients struggling with certain types of anxiety have reported feeling safer in their own home. With that sense of overall safety, can also come a deeper level of vulnerability in discussing the really ‘tough stuff’ with their counselor.
Comfort is another factor when attending counseling from one’s home. It can be argued that there is less stress in talking about difficult issues when you feel comfortable physically. We have seen clients routinely log on to their session from their bedrooms and their beds!
Next, let’s look at some of the pros of in-person counseling sessions:
1) Immediacy One of the hallmarks of positive engagement with a professional counselor is the interpersonal relationship that develops between the parties. Rapport, a sense of emotional safety, and trust are essential for the client to be willing to reveal the details of their circumstances, and the depth with which they suffer. After all, the issues bringing the client into counseling have likely been troubling them for some time. It takes tremendous courage to make that initial call for help.
The ability for the client to experience immediate and uninterrupted attention, support, and validation from their counselor can mean the difference between finally taking that initial step forward toward change - or continuing to feel ‘stuck’ and often times, hopeless. Immediacy in a counseling session offers the opportunity for that “a-ha” moment that is so often thought of as a goal of the counseling experience.
2) Accountability Accountability is defined as, “…an assurance that an individual will be evaluated on their performance or behavior related to something for which they are responsible…”
In the counseling arena, this means that clients are asked to “own” their thoughts, words, choices, actions, mistakes, and misdeeds. The counselor’s ability to address these issues and to hold the client accountable involves not allowing the client to make excuses, deny, or avoid their responsibility for their circumstances. This can be a powerful moment between client and counselor, and the beginning of the client’s recognition of the things they have the power to change. Being held accountable is often much more impactful when confronted face-to-face.
3) Privacy and Confidentiality For many clients, privacy and confidentiality are of extreme importance. As counselors, we are ethically and legally responsible to protect our clients’ privacy, and to assure their confidentiality to the best of our ability. This includes things like protecting the contents of their records, obtaining a Release of Information form in order to discuss a client with another professional or family member, and most importantly, simply assuring our client that their conversation is with us - and us alone. * The private counseling room offers the best possible opportunity to honor these needs.
Every client opting for virtual sessions should be informed that there are limits to our ability to guarantee privacy and confidentiality in a virtual scenario. For example, another person in their home - in another room - could overhear their session, or someone could unexpectedly walk into the room uninvited and overhear their session. And, while the professional counselor should be conducting the session from a private, soundproof area of their home or office, the reality is that many do not. Therefore, the client cannot know for certain that the session is private from the counselor’s end of the connection.
4) Confidence that the session will occur and not be interrupted! An in-person session is a commitment of 50-minutes, uninterrupted by both the counselor and the client. We have all had our share of intermittent internet connections, difficulty connecting at all, and dropped connection once initiated, when conducting any type of exchange over the internet. There is no quicker way to have a virtual counseling session go awry, than to experience the frustration of internet sabotage!
Finally, having conducted virtual sessions with my own clients extensively for the past 2 ½ years, I can say without a doubt, that I prefer seeing my clients in-person! I am able to gain insight as a result of witnessing my client’s body language, physical demeanor, and unfiltered and immediate emotion. I also know that I personally bring more energy and more focus to the experience of having a client seated before me, than behind a screen!
While virtual sessions can offer convenience, safety, and comfort for clients, I believe that the features of immediacy, accountability, privacy, confidentiality, and certainty of the dedicated time are all the reasons I need to continue to encourage in-person sessions with my current and future clients.
See you in the session room!
* Exceptions to this promise, dictated by law, are topics related to harm to others or self-harm.