Online Therapy: What Mental Health Professionals Need to Be Successful

Online therapy has made it easier for therapists to communicate with clients. Online therapy – also known as teletherapy – uses technology such as instant messaging and video chat tools to provide services.

Remotely treating clients is convenient for both clients and practitioners and helps fill some of the gaps in care in under-served communities. But offering teletherapy services can be challenging to navigate at first. From dealing with slow internet to navigating complicated video platforms, online therapy comes with a unique set of challenges. Here is how to set yourself up for success.

Online therapy can be tricky. Start on the right track with Ravel Mental Health.

What is Online Therapy?

With online therapy, therapists perform therapy and clients attend sessions remotely. Typically, sessions take place using video chat, instant messaging, or email. Online therapy has many benefits for both therapists and clients, including flexibility, convenience, and increased access.

While online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person care, the delivery of sessions virtually requires skills that in-person therapy does not.

How to Be Successful as an Online Therapist

Online therapy isn’t something providers begin on a whim. Training specifically related to providing online therapy is the best place to start. But let’s break down the basics of what therapists need to know before offering teletherapy sessions.

Use a HIPAA-based Platform

Not all digital platforms are secure enough to hold sessions on. If a therapist uses a system that isn’t HIPAA-encrypted, it might be possible for people to view or download parts of the session. Examples of non-secure video chat platforms include FaceTime and the basic version of Zoom. But there are plenty of platforms that are HIPPA-encrypted, including, VSee, and Zoom for Healthcare.

The platform must be willing to provide a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) to be HIPAA-compliant. A BAA is a document pledging that the company will treat all information with privacy.

Make Sure Online Therapy Is Right for the Client

Online therapy might not be a good fit for every client, such as individuals with cognitive issues, hearing problems, or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. And some clients just aren’t comfortable with technology or the idea of online therapy.

A therapist needs to effectively determine whether online therapy is a good fit for each client. This should be done with an initial assessment that looks at the client’s symptoms and comfort level. For example, dropped calls and technical difficulties can be a huge upset to some patients, and it’s important to consider whether these situations could negatively affect high-risk clients.

Verify Patient Information

Medical identity theft is a serious concern. Therefore, once a therapist takes on a new client, they should ask the client to verify their identity by holding up a picture ID at the first session. Additionally, it’s a good idea to verify a client’s physical location during each session in the event of an emergency.

Keep Jurisdictional Issues in Mind

Licensure laws are tricky when it comes to online therapy. Although technology allows therapists to conduct sessions remotely, their license does not necessarily allow them to practice anywhere. Therefore, therapists should only see clients present in the state(s) they are licensed in. Licensure laws still apply when clients are traveling out of state, which can affect the continuity of care. This is why it’s important to find out where patients are during each session.

Understand Billing and Insurance Policies for Online Therapy

Constantly changing regulations make it difficult to stay up to date on billing policies for online therapy. Therapists should read up on the reimbursement policies in their state. Therapists should also look into insurance requirements for offering virtual sessions to clients.

Set Up Your Space

First, therapists need certain pieces of equipment to conduct online therapy, including:

  • Computer, smartphone, or tablet (many come with an integrated speaker, microphone, and camera)
  • External microphone (if necessary)
  • External camera (if necessary)
  • Headphones or headset (if you want more privacy)

Next, double-check that there isn’t anything distracting or too personal in the camera’s background. Therapists carefully arrange office space for in-person therapy, and the same should be true for virtual sessions to provide the client with the best possible experience.

Establish a Safe Virtual Environment

Therapists should hold sessions from the same place during each session if possible. This establishes a consistent space that clients are familiar with. Therapists can also address any outside noises during the call, such as a barking dog or simple street noise.

Additionally, it is vital to have a locked and soundproofed area to work in when providing online therapy sessions. It can be beneficial to inform clients of any privacy measures in place, such as a white noise machine outside the office door.

Test Your Equipment

It’s essential to test the internet connection before sessions. When the internet cuts out, it can interrupt the flow of the sessions and hinder client progress.

Another way to ensure smooth sessions is to test lighting and audio in advance. For the best results, extra lighting should be placed in front of the camera rather than behind. Wearing a headset can improve the sound quality and signal to clients that they can speak without concern of being overheard.

Research Emergency Services Near the Client

Since online therapy takes place from a distance, therapists must know where clients can access emergency services. Gather this information for each client before sessions and include it in their chart.

Guide Your Patients

Before an online therapy session, therapists might want to send clients an email with tips and expectations. Some pointers that clients might include:

  • How to join the online session
  • What’s expected of the space they are in, such as a private, well-lit room that allows the therapist to clearly see them and their responses
  • What equipment they will need and how to test their internet connection
  • Muting devices such as cell phones or desktop notifications to minimize distractions

Don’t Lose Personal Connection

Maintaining eye contact during online sessions is imperative. Clients should feel as if they have their therapist’s full attention. During sessions, it’s best to avoid looking at other screens or taking notes for too long, as it can be distracting and even unnerving for clients. If necessary, therapists can explain to the client why they are looking away.

Have a Backup Plan

When technology is involved, something can always go wrong. But, if it does, stay calm. Clients look to their therapist to feel safe and comfortable. While technical glitches can be stressful, they’re inevitable with remote sessions.

Prepare for glitches by testing the digital platform with a family member or colleague to avoid being caught off guard if they happen during a session. If a glitch cuts a session off, therapists can switch the session over to a phone call.

More and more people want to access mental health services from the comfort of their homes. As therapy services have moved online, therapists need to adapt and prepare for this long-term shift.

Online therapy is an excellent option for clients, but therapists need to ensure they do what is best for themselves and their clients. Before holding online sessions, therapists should have processes in place that protect clients and make them feel safe in the virtual environment.

Want to connect with clients interested in teletherapy?  Learn about Ravel Mental Health.  

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