Connecting with Teletherapy Clients in a Virtual World

The need for quality behavioral health services has been heightened and highlighted during the COVID pandemic. The value and importance of behavioral health services have become part of the national conversation in recent months. It is clear that a therapists services are an essential part of helping people navigate these difficult times. The pandemic has led to growth in the behavioral services community, but much of that growth is coming from teletherapy sessions. The research into the effectiveness on teletherapy is encouraging because it shows that this type of therapy has the potential to be as effective as in-person therapy for a long list of mental health concerns. Teletherapy has also made it easier for a broader range of the population to access therapy, including those living in remote areas with limited access to care. Despite the benefits of teletherapy – especially now when it’s not an option to meet face-to-face in many areas – it can be difficult for clients to feel connected in the same way as they do when meeting in person. In order to connect with patients in a world where mental health services are happening virtually, you need to have some resources and tools that keep your clients engaged in the process.   

Help Clients Engage with Multiple Senses

When you have a face-to-face session with a client, you can get clues about what the client is experiencing through a number of elements such as body language, appearance, affect, and interactions with the environment. There is a wealth of research that supports the importance of nonverbal communication during therapy. Conducting an individual or group therapy session through teletherapy can make it more difficult to pick up on those subtle cues, making it more difficult to create and maintain a connection with your clients. One way to overcome this tendency is to help clients engage multiple senses during teletherapy sessions. For example, instead of relying on your own observations of your client’s body language through the screen, teach your patient to notice and describe what is happening physically throughout the session. The process of drawing attention to the physical changes that happen during therapy can help you and the client connect and remain engaged. This process can work in group teletherapy as well by involving everyone in the process of noticing the physical changes that happen with themselves and other group members throughout the therapy process. Being in the same physical space is not possible during teletherapy, but you can continue to use physical cues to keep your patients engaged in the process.  

Make Homework a Priority

In a world where just about everything is currently done at home – work, school, therapy – it may be difficult for patients to create separation between the different areas of their life. As a behavioral healthcare provider, you may be feeling the same way. When you meet with a client in person, it is easy to differentiate between what happens in the session and what needs to happen at home. With teletherapy, those lines can seem a little blurry. You may feel hesitant to assign clients ‘homework’ when they are already doing therapy sessions from home. The reality is, however, that this homework can be an important part of keeping patients engaged with you and with the process. For example, if you practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you have likely used therapeutic journaling with clients in the past. The research on therapeutic journaling shows that it can provide a number of benefits including decreased mental distress and improved well-being. Using homework tools such as therapeutic journaling can help teletherapy clients stay engaged between sessions.

Remember that Many Clients are Accustomed to Interacting Virtually

The transition from meeting with clients in person to seeing them primarily in a teletherapy setting can be difficult. It may be a struggle for some behavioral health clinicians to develop a connection with a client without seeing them in person. It is important to remember that while you may think it is difficult to connect with clients in a virtual world, your clients do not necessarily feel the same way. Virtual meetings and Zoom family gatherings have become “the norm”. Some clients may even feel more freedom to connect and engage with you because the therapy is done virtually. You may find that you have clients who are willing to engage in therapy virtually but would not be willing to engage in therapy in a traditional, in person setting.

Connecting with patients and keeping them engaged during individual or group therapy can be a challenge whether you meet face-to-face or through teletherapy. It can feel more difficult to connect with patients in a virtual world because there is so much information to be gained by being in the same room.  Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated the option for in-person therapy for many people. The good news about the increase in teletherapy is that research supports it as an effective alternative to in-person therapy. Going forward, teletherapy can open up therapy as an option for people who are unable or unwilling to attend traditional, face-to-face sessions.

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