Counselling Online: Is this the Future?


online counselling

Let’s face it; every day that passes we are becoming more and more dependent on our online presence to accomplish our daily tasks. We bank online, order clothes and food, make our plans, create our companies, get our news, market our brands, sells our wares, connect with our friends and family, and now – we even get our counselling online.

When I first started counselling, I was a phone counselor for the Fraser Health Crisis Hotline, and we would spend hours on the phone trying to help people deal with whatever crisis they might be struggling with. It was a very effective and powerful way to give hope to someone that needed some guidance and support in a real time of need. That being said, it totally went against traditional forms of therapy. It is great for its purpose of immediate crisis counselling, but not what would be considered a very efficient way to give “effective psychotherapy”.

Most traditional counselling is about creating a safe environment; which would include designing your office in such a way that would ensure maximum effect. Things like an intimidating number of psychological textbooks on the shelves, degrees hanging on the wall from all kinds of institutions and cutting edge furniture and decorative accent lighting are all carefully planned out to provide the right comfortable environment for sharing feelings and thoughts of intimate nature.

The second part to this equation is more about the body language, breathing, eye contact; even the energy between the counsellor and the client could all be important. What’s the client wearing? How do they keep themselves? What do they do with their hands when they’re talking? How far away do they sit from you? Where are their shoulders facing? All of these could be subtle hints that could assist the professional in their therapy.

So here lie the questions: With the rise of the internet for everything in our lives and the traditional psychotherapy practices and beliefs –
1. Can we give effective counselling online?
2. Is online counselling the future?

When I first started working in this industry, the idea of Skype counselling or meeting someone on “face time” sounded like an interesting idea that could happen ‘one day’. Now, I have been doing “Skype-Sessions” more in the last 3 months than the last three years. It has become a regular part of my timetable and I schedule it in the same way I do all my in office clients.

Is it effective? I think it is. Despite the fact that I am no longer able to control the environment and I only get a head view of the client, I find that online counselling can be just as helpful as in the office. Here are a few reasons why…

Busy – We are so busy! People seem to be busier now than ever. Most people that I meet are almost literally running off their feet with things to do. Between kids, jobs, groups, games, meetings, doctors…life – Scheduling a coffee with a friend can require a week’s notice and having any personal self-care time is a foreign concept to us.
This makes online counselling a huge benefit; people can wear anything, be anywhere, at any time and still get the help they need. Sometimes all a person has in a day is an hour or two in the afternoon, but if you equate driving time etc… Then just doing the session becomes a stressful experience. E-counseling can help with that.

Safety – Creating safety for your clients is a big deal in regards to being able to start growing and maintaining a relationship with them. If the person doesn’t feel safe and comfortable to talk, then a great amount of time and money gets wasted dealing with the resistance. This isn’t fun for anybody.
What I’m finding is that the office in some ways is more intimidating for people that are struggling with agoraphobia, social anxiety, panic attacks and serious depression and grief. Some people feel much safer in their own space and even get a sense of comfort from the idea that there is boundary between us and they can just ‘shut off’ the session whenever they want.

Convenience – This has got to be the greatest benefit of online counselling; it’s very convenient. You get the support you need with the least amount of disruption to your life. You can have a session when the baby goes down for a nap, when you’re on your lunch break, on vacation, in your pajamas and having your first coffee… the sky’s the limit!
For some people this is a huge help. Nowadays less and less people are fitting in to ‘normal’ type life structures. The 9 to 5 jobs and home every night for supper isn’t a reality for most. So having a counselling program that adapts to your life can be a real advantage.

Availability and Geography – Not everyone can get to an office. There are many people that are struggling with health issues and mobility concerns that keep them from taking long trips or sitting in a chair for an hour straight. This is especially true with people who are elderly or on disability. The physical obstacles become as frustrating and debilitating as the mental concerns. It can be almost impossible to focus on re framing your thoughts when your back is killing you!
People are also often on the move or traveling around. I have had a few clients that have either relocated, moved or went on extended trips that wanted to continue with their therapy. It is really nice for the client to be able to continue the work you have started even if they are in Germany and you’re in Canada. This saves time, money and hassle of trying to find another counsellor and starting over.

For this day and age there are a lot of benefits to the community to offer online counselling. Does that mean that a more traditional office type counsel is on its way out, or out dated? No, I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact I still feel that for most people having a face to face conversation in a controlled setting is going to be the most beneficial experience for both parties. But like anything else in the world, we are not a one size fits all kind of society, and not everyone is going to fit into that concept.

I think there is a risk that it could turn the industry into a convenient fast food type of service that just provides ‘make me feel good’ surface level therapy, but I personally feel that the deeper exploring can still be done here.

I am not sure how long it will take, but I sense the times are changing and even the way we do traditional psychotherapy will have to take notice. We need to keep pace with our society and meet our clients where they are at and make room for the ever changing ways they do life. So I am expecting that my future will hold even more skype sessions than ever. And I can see a time when you can do all your counselling even while traveling or on vacation anywhere in the world.

I don’t hate this idea, and I don’t think the world hates it anymore either.

Ken McDonnell

Ken McDonnell is a Registered Professional Counselor out of Surrey and Maple B.C. Canada