This article first appeared in the Scotsman on 17 March 2022
As the world changed in April 2020, it became evident that if counsellors were to be able to meet the needs of their clients, counselling would have to find a home in the online world. Having made this transition out of necessity, and as we move back to some degree of normality, we must ask ourselves what we have learned and what does it mean for counselling practice going forward?
Counsellors were forced to go online to continue helping clients during the pandemic
For many counsellors and their clients, meeting online for any reason was a whole new experience. Once the technology was mastered, as a practitioner my first concern was how effectively would I be able to make and maintain the trusting relationship that is essential for meaningful work to be done with clients. This is something I can do when I have clients in the room with me, but I did not know if this skill would translate online. However, quite to my surprise I found that I was still able to connect and create a safe environment for clients in this strange new world. This allowed my confidence to grow, and I now feel comfortable with this way of working and plan to see clients both online and face to face from now on.
My experience has been shared by many Relationships Scotland counsellors. In a survey carried out with our practitioners recently, many expressed surprise at finding themselves adapting more easily to online working than they expected. They found that they liked the ease and accessibility of online counselling and believed that it suited clients too. It was now more accessible for many clients who previously would not have had the opportunity to attend due to childcare issues, financial reasons, disability, transport or living in rural areas. There were also far fewer cancelled appointments.
Not all feedback was positive, however. Many people experienced problems with IT issues, such as poor internet connection interrupting sessions. Also, the maintaining of boundaries -where clients would be interrupted by children, for example, was a difficulty experienced by some counsellors. Not all counsellors felt that you could work as meaningfully at a deep level with clients as with in-person work. Counsellors often glean the emotions a client is experiencing from reading client’s body language. Many counsellors felt the lack of being able to see the whole person when online impacted on the quality of the work they were able to do with their clients.
Overall, from the initial research Relationships Scotland has done, the experience of online counselling has been a positive one for counsellors, with many intending to offer both online and in-person counselling going forward. I had my first face-to-face counselling session since the pandemic began this week. I did wonder beforehand if I would find that online counselling had been a poor imitation of the real thing, but no! It was a very similar experience.
The past two years has been a steep learning curve for everyone in the counselling world. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to grow and develop as a profession. Having taken on this challenge, we emerge with knowledge and skills that have added a new dimension to the service that we can offer our clients and I am happy to call that a win!
Mhairi Canning, Counselling and Supervision Manager, Relationships Scotland