How Digital Tools Have Changed Counseling

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Everyone knows that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world forever, and for obvious reasons, the field that was perhaps most permanently and substantially altered was healthcare. Health systems around the world bent beneath the weight of increased hospital admissions, overwhelmed general practitioners, and all too unsurprisingly, exploding demand for mental health professionals.

Luckily, we came prepared. By 2020, we’d had the tools needed to enable greater adoption of telehealth for nearly 20 years – Skype, the original video conferencing service, was originally launched in 2003, albeit to substantially less fanfare than the advent of Zoom’s user-friendly platform during the pandemic. But it has, in fact, been publicly available (and free) for over two decades at the time of writing.

But video calling isn’t the only tool transforming mental healthcare. Smartphones, customer resource management systems, strong encryption, connected healthcare records systems, and even the dawn of virtual reality and artificial intelligence have all played a part in making mental health services more accessible than ever.

Being Seen

The ubiquity and normalization of video calling have changed every workplace in some way. Any part of jobs that require or benefit from face-to-face interaction has become vastly less complicated – and less expensive, to boot. This is true for no profession more so than mental health counselors.

The rise of teletherapy has enabled therapists and qualified professionals with an MA in counseling psychology online to not only work from home but also to expand their total addressable market. A reputable therapist can attract clients from all over the country, or even the world, without needing to fly around to make house calls. But even more importantly, people who previously did not have access to mental health care as a result of living in rural or remote areas now have a plethora of options for counseling services at their literal fingertips.

Reaching Out Anywhere

Speaking of fingertips, it’s not only who can access therapy that has expanded, but even where clients can access their mental health professionals. Appointments that once might have involved carving out time for yet another stressful commute are now available on the same device we all keep in our pockets with us everywhere we go: our phones.

Whether it be a phone call or a Zoom or Google Meet, it’s all too easy to pull out our phones and start chatting, whether we’re at home, on our way home from work, or a lunch break. This aspect of telehealth is an especially important gamechanger for those with the most challenging lifestyles: children, single parents, people suffering from extreme anxiety, and victims of abuse can now access appointments that might have simply been logistically impossible for them before telehealth became the norm because their therapist can be with them no matter where they are – even if they can’t access a computer.

But the convenience and functionality offered by phones don’t stop at appointments. Many mental health professionals recommend apps to help patients promote mindfulness, instill confidence, and develop other habits and ways of thinking that help improve their patient’s quality of life. In an age where social media has created rifts in families, communities, and even countries, it’s easy to forget how helpful our technology can be; for patients who can’t always make it in to see their counselor during the crucial moments that they might need them the most, these apps might be the difference between life and death.

Checking All the Boxes

Technology is making things easier and more convenient for patients, to be sure. But practices are catching a major break, too: the suite of digital tools available for small business owners is more robust than ever, and therapists benefit as much as anyone. Cloud-based CRMs like Salesforce and Monday that receive HIPAA compliance certification make it easier than ever for individual therapists and small practice owners to maintain detailed, confidential records that can be accessed from anywhere they have access to the internet, whether that be at their practice’s office, a home office, or even on the go.

Simple content management systems like WordPress and Squarespace make it easy and affordable to operate a website, where therapists can offer easy options for contacting them and scheduling appointments, ensuring their clients have the flexibility to schedule appointments whenever possible.

Encryption has been another game-changing technology for small businesses. Laws often restrict the avenues through which practitioners can share sensitive medical data, including client records, prescriptions, and appointments. The wider availability of systems employing strong encryption, like Signal and Docusign, makes it easier than ever to ensure confidentiality in communication. Like the tools mentioned above, this reduces the administrative time and cost burdens that can make or break a small practice and makes the delivery of services easier for all parties involved.

Changing the Game

While the technologies that make therapy more accessible and affordable are crucial, perhaps the most interesting technologies affecting the field are beginning to change the way we conceive of the idea of therapy itself. Virtual reality (VR) technology is finding a wide range of applications in mental health services, from therapeutic apps designed to simulate green space or other calming environments, to immersive therapy, and even help people overcome anxiety or trauma to engage in simulated exposure therapy that helps them build confidence and overcome their fears. VR has already helped people achieve better experiences in therapy, with one study showing that 30% of people feel more comfortable disclosing their negative experiences in VR as compared with face-to-face appointments.

While delivering innovative and high-quality therapies will doubtless change the lives of many patients who can afford them, quantity has a quality all of its own, and no therapist could ever hope to conduct as many appointments in a day as a chatbot. Artificial intelligence may make counseling accessible to even more people than smartphones and telehealth – after all, it’s already available for free. Believe it or not, the first AI therapist dates back to 1964 – a program called ELIZA, one of the first chatbots ever developed. With free, more effective modern alternatives like Youper and Wysa, anyone can access therapy anywhere, any time.

Mental healthcare was once a privilege exclusive to select individuals. While the proliferation of medical degrees and therapy certificates has helped make mental health services more accessible, the technology being deployed today has the potential to magnify the positive impact of counseling and reach people who might have otherwise never even thought to ask for help. Even in a world where the deleterious effects of technology make headlines, it can’t be denied that the internet and advanced digital technologies continue to make the world a better place in new – and sometimes unexpected- ways.


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