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Opinion: If you're anxious and overwhelmed, you're not alone. Online counselling can help with Covid-19 stress

Dil Wickremasinghe says this difficult Covid-19 experience can bring challenges, but that help is available.

Dil Wickremasinghe

It’s a difficult time for everyone, with the Covid-19 outbreak bringing severe and unexpected changes to our lives. Amidst all the negative news there has been a growing community spirit across Ireland.

Technology is playing a part in keeping communities and families close, offering video conferencing calls, mindfulness and exercise classes to help everyone maintain their mental health.

Here at TheJournal.ie, we will be featuring some of these as time goes on. Today, we hear from Dil Wickremasinghe – Co-Founder of Insight Matters, psychotherapy, counselling and wellness services, about online counselling, which many may find helpful during this time of physical distancing:

THE LAST TIME I wrote a piece for TheJournal.ie I was a full-time journalist but now I am writing to you as trainee psychotherapist and director of a busy mental health support service. I still care deeply about breaking down mental health stigma, sparking positive social change and inspiring change in self and society – so nothing much has changed!

These are strange and challenging times and if you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed, please know you are not alone as even as I write this I feel my anxiety levels rise and fall throughout the day. I keep doing my mountain meditation once or twice a day and reminding myself that “storms come and go but the mountain remains, tall, rooted and dignified.”

In an effort to try to offer support and reassurance on how to reach out for support amidst our collective personal responsibility to observe social distancing, here are my thoughts on online counselling. 

Between therapist and client

Counselling and psychotherapy has been primarily a practice that has been conducted in person as the relationship is regarded as the therapy. The process of therapy unfolds within the dynamic of the two people sitting across from each other. The therapist attunes to the client’s nuanced spoken, non-verbal and unconscious self and facilitates the client to step into a more conscious, active and empowered way of being in the world.

Some practitioners would still be of the view that this is the most effective and beneficial method to access therapy. However with technology rapidly infiltrating most aspects of our lives it’s no surprise that for quite some time now mental health support has been provided online either through instant messaging, voice or video calls. 

So the question remains how could such an intimate relational experience between therapist and client be replicated virtually? Well, as a practice of 55 psychotherapists supporting over 400 clients per week we collectively learned that not only does online counselling work, but it has a capacity to be as effective as face to face therapy.

In practice – from the therapist’s perspective

Like most, we realised last week that the coronavirus changes were coming, and would be here for some time. Most of the therapists in our practice, in an effort to continue supporting their clients during these unprecedented times, made the swift jump from face to face to online counselling.

The most difficult aspects were the logistics, working out what the best and most secure platform would be, how to support the client with the transition and to ensure they felt connected and engaged with the process at all times. The therapists found using this new method of providing therapy to their clients both exhilarating and deeply rewarding.

From the client’s perspective

As a trainee psychotherapist engagement in personal therapy is mandatory, and I have been attending weekly sessions with my therapist since April 2018. This week I experienced for the first time what it was like to be on the receiving end of online therapy as a client, as my therapist has moved her practice to online during this phase.

I still get nervous before therapy but I noticed I was a bit more nervous than usual as I was unsure of the online platform and how I would feel speaking into a computer.

However, once her familiar face filled the screen and I heard her warm empathic voice, my worries melted away and soon I was talking… and bawling my eyes out! Suffice to say online therapy worked a treat for me.

Where to find a therapist?

At present this sector is not yet regulated but is expected to be soon. As a result of this, it is imperative that you shop around and “interview” a therapist before you begin the process.

  • Ask them how long they have been practising

  • In what areas do they specialise and what approach do they take?

  • When did they qualify and where did they get their qualification?

  • Are they accredited and if so which body are they accredited with?

Remember this is your mental health, just like you wouldn’t trust your car with any mechanic, you shouldn’t trust any therapist with your mental health.

Where to find a counsellor or therapist?

A good place to start is the accreditation bodies responsible for maintaining professional standards.

How to get the most out of your online session?

To make sure you get the most out of your sessions and to help your therapist do their job, there are some optimal conditions you need to bear in mind. The prevailing message when it comes to online counselling is to try your best to make your online session as close to a face to face session as possible. You can:

  • Ensure you have a fast and reliable internet connection

  • Use a laptop instead of a phone for comfort, stop notifications so you won’t be disturbed

  • Try to recreate the same sense of privacy and confidentiality you would experience in a therapy room – if you are not alone at home, give strict instructions not to disturb you!

  • Put your phone away

  • Give yourself plenty of time to be ready so you can get into the zone

  • For continuity, pick the same day and time on a weekly basis 

  • Try to have the same quiet and safe space, with a comfortable chair, tissues, water

  • Check the temperature of the room is comfortable for you 

  • For added privacy use headphones

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first

Many years ago I worked as a flight attendant for five years and made the safety announcement sometimes multiple times a day “put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help others.”

I used to think surely you needed to help the more vulnerable first, like children and older people? If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that by exercising the most basic form of self-care which is handwashing, we can protect ourselves and protect the people around us.

Looking after your mental health and well-being through the support of counselling and psychotherapy during these uncertain times is to be regarded not as a luxury but as a necessity in our collective efforts to weather the coming months.

Dil Wickremasinghe is co-founder of Insight Matters, psychotherapy, counselling and wellness services and podcaster of “Insight Matters – Inspiring Change in Self & Society”. Twitter: @dilw, Email: dil@insightmatters.ie, Web:www.insightmatters.ie 

Other resources, if you need to talk:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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About the author:

Dil Wickremasinghe

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