Connecting to a therapist online

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By Daniel Rabinowitz

A lot of people are finding it difficult to connect right now. Many are isolated and alone, or trapped in a confined space.

Many are forced into quarantine with people with whom they have toxic relationships. Many are cut off from their work colleagues, class mates, or their communities. As the gravity and seriousness of the Covid-19 outbreak grows, people are increasingly feeling despair and uncertainty about the future. Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel in San Francisco says, “I think people in these kinds of situations [of Covid-19] are looking for facilitated connection. There’s a profound thirst for meaning right now …” If you are looking for a meaningful connection, you may consider reaching out to an online therapist. Whether you are in an emotional crisis, or want to learn some skills, there is no better time to start looking after your mental health.

Does online therapy work?
Many of the potential clients that I’ve welcomed into therapy in the last few weeks have asked me if online therapy will be beneficial or not. I tell them that it is the quality of our relationship that matters. Together with your therapist, you will decide on the best way to conduct the online therapy such as Skype, Zoom, or WhatsApp video chat. All of these have built-in end-to-end security, so you needn’t worry about a breach in confidentiality. So, can you really develop a quality relationship sitting behind a screen? Well, think of some of the movies that you have watched which have touched you or moved you. Online therapy can be just as profound. And, won’t it feel weird or strange? Well, think of what it is like to see your children or other relatives online who live far away from home. In a flash, you forget about the screen, and you become completely immersed in the conversation. Of course, there is bound to be a bit of nervousness or awkwardness when you are meeting someone for the first time. But, hey, who said that sitting in a psychologist’s office for the first time isn’t just as nerve-wracking or awkward?

What are the benefits of online therapy?
There is a lot of emerging research that suggests that online psychology is just as effective as traditional in-person psychology. Some research suggests that online therapy is actually more beneficial in many ways. For example, it can save you time and money. You don’t need to take a chunk out of your day to drive to the therapist’s office. You won’t need to sit in the waiting room where you might see someone you know, or risk contracting (or spreading) COVID-19. At the agreed-upon hour, you’ll log in to your computer or press the application on your cell phone and, voila, say hello to your therapist, just as if you were sitting in their office. There are some clients who prefer meeting their therapists online, such as those with a phobia of elevators, or those with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who struggle with germs. Some of my clients who travel regularly get benefit from the continuity of the online experience — no matter where they are in the world, their therapist is right there with them.

Why can’t I just phone a friend?
Unlike a friend, you are not in a reciprocal relationship with a therapist. That means that therapy is all about you. A friend is subjective and could tell you what you want to hear, subtly keeping you in the same ineffective patterns of thinking or behaviour. Though friendships allow for safety in many ways, there are things that we would disclose in therapy that would be deeply unsettling for them to hear. Therapy is an objective, safe, supportive, and empathetic space to explore the aspects of yourself that you could never reveal to a friend. A conversation with a friend is just that — a conversation. Therapists, however, are trained professionals who have had years of training in advanced human behaviour, relationship dynamics, and effective interventions.

How do I contact an online therapist?
It might be as simple as doing a Google search, or asking for word-of-mouth recommendations. Finding a therapist is relatively straightforward as most therapists who offer in-person sessions also offer virtual sessions. Remember that different therapists have different approaches (compare CBT and psychodynamic) and different specialisations (compare depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma etc.). The most important criterion is to make sure that your chosen online therapist is qualified to practice psychology and that they are registered by a recognised body such as the Health Professions Council of South Africa. You may find out that your Internet connection is the best way to establish a meaningful connection in these disconnected times.

Daniel is in private practice as an associate clinical psychologist at Cape Town Psychologists in Sea Point.

Daniel Rabinowitz

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