A First-Hand Experience with Online Counseling during COVID-19
By AACs’ Deputy Director Leigha Shoup
While we are all adjusting to the new day-to-day life of social distancing and shelter-in-place rules, I felt it was important to share my experience with mental health telemedicine. I very rarely discuss my personal life or my mental health experiences publicly, but I am choosing to share this to help others who might be unsure, nervous or worried about how to access online counseling services while navigating life during the pandemic.
If you feel apprehensive about starting or moving your counseling sessions online, I understand entirely. I felt the same way. I prefer to have counseling sessions in-person because I think there is a better connection with my counselor, and I believe that I can express myself in a more honest and vulnerable way. With COVID-19 and the new social distancing mandates that have been handed down, it is no longer possible to go to an office and have my sessions. At the same time, not meeting is also not an option for me. I have put in and continue to put in a lot of hard work, and I didn’t want that to stop. This type of change made me feel nervous about the unknown. The unknown can be nerve-wracking because it can lead to fear and anxiety. I was no exception to this.
Staying true to how I deal with my stress, I had asked my counselor ahead of time what the options would be if we eventually got to a shelter-in-place rule in Ohio. (I asked about this before the mandates because I worry and like to have a plan if things will have to change.) She let me know that my insurance would be covering telemedicine or remote services and that she had a HIPAA-compliant online portal that I could use to continue services. I was skeptical but relieved at the same time. It put my mind at ease knowing I could still receive services even if I were unable to leave my home.
After Gov. DeWine issued Ohio’s stay-at-home order, my counselor sent me an email with a link to the portal and an access code. I used that access code to log into my patient portal and complete some basic questions about myself for my entrance into the website. The basic questions were all things that my counselor already knew, like my name and birth date, but they were required to set up my portal account. Once I finished answering those questions, that was it. It was very straightforward. Now all I had to do was wait for my appointment time. Waiting caused me a little bit of worry. If changes have to occur, I like to create a plan and put that plan into practice as soon as possible. That wasn’t an option this time, and I had to be patient.
On the day of the appointment, I felt nervous and unsure of how things would go. I signed in about five minutes before my scheduled time. Once I signed in, I was able to wait for my session to start and test my computer to make sure all the parts were working correctly. My computer’s internet connection, microphone, video camera and speakers were all I needed for the session. It’s good to check all of these things ahead of time to limit any technical problems you could have.
Ultimately, the meeting was very productive, and we were able to cover a lot of topics. I didn’t feel that anything was lost by having the session remotely. I kept waiting for something to feel “off” during the conversation, and that feeling never came. I even had to ask my counselor to wait one moment when my dog, Kiko, started barking at the postman, and I paused a few seconds to give my daughter a hug and kiss before her nap. None of that was part of my original plans. My counselor waited, and what I thought would cause a problem just ended up not being one. I realized that even though things popped up during session that never would have happened in her office, it was okay, and we worked around them.
Overall, the session was productive and very helpful for me. I realized after the meeting that many things have been weighing heavily on me with everything going on in the world right now, from COVID-19 and racism, to hate crimes and sheltering in place. I felt relieved that accessing my counselor was easy and convenient, even if my dog wanted to speak up, too. I was happy that I could complete everything through a portal and not have to step into an office during this time. While this isn’t my preferred method of seeking mental health services, it is the best option right now.
I hope sharing my personal experience with telemedicine for the first time helps more people reach out and use these new types of services. I would like to see this form of access become a permanent option for people even after COVID-19 has passed. These are uncertain times, but you can get help, whether that is over the phone, through text messaging, or video calling. Mental health services ARE available without ever having to leave your home.