Joining the frontlines as a virtual therapist: how the pandemic inspired me to deliver remote care

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As we continue to celebrate Social Work Month, we turn our attention to how social workers are responding to the ongoing mental health crisis. In this week’s blog, Natalie S. shares why she chose to become a virtual therapist and how it’s helped patients thrive.

This is the third blog of a four-part series celebrating Social Work Month. Check out our last article written by Sharon D., LCSW on how to grow in your career as a social worker.

By Natalie S., LCSW, AbleTo Therapist

For over a decade, I was a “boots on the ground” type of social worker. You know, intensive care, residential treatment facilities, outpatient clinics, community health centers — the works. Since 2007, I’ve had the honor of helping hundreds of people navigate through difficult circumstances, working with everyone from foster care youth to patients with severe mental illnesses.

While I really enjoyed having that one-on-one interaction with people and being able to make a tangible impact, I knew that social work as a profession had so many different expressions and I wanted to build on that. As a lifelong learner, I’m always looking for ways to grow and add more tools to my “toolbox,” so to speak.

I believe that when you’re working closely with people, you want all of your interactions to be organic and authentic. And to do that, you need to be able to build a career that exposes you to a diverse group of people. We become better clinicians when we’re intentional about understanding the human experience from different lenses. I saw virtual therapy as a unique avenue that allows us to do just that.

The importance of virtual therapy

I first discovered telehealth when I noticed more and more psychiatrists practicing it at the community mental health center I was working at in Kentucky. We served a rural community and our providers utilized virtual care to overcome access barriers such as transportation or inclement weather. I frequently thought about how groundbreaking it would be if we (therapists) could also meet with patients remotely.

But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that I realized just how valuable delivering remote care was. Between the global lockdown, isolation, and uncertainty, telehealth became an essential tool on the frontlines. You see, the pandemic didn’t eliminate the challenges people were facing with mental health. If anything, it exacerbated them.

I was drawn to how virtual therapy addressed the mental health crisis and was pivotal in helping the world recover and rebuild. That’s when I knew I wanted to transition to virtual therapy and be a part of a movement that’s removing barriers to much needed behavioral health care.

In-person session vs. virtual therapy

Now, whenever I mention virtual therapy to a fellow provider who isn’t familiar with it, I do get a bit of pushback. I’ll admit that these concerns and questions are valid — I had them as well before I made the transition.

How can I effectively observe the patient and assess their appearance or mannerisms?
What if the internet goes out during the middle of the session?
Can I make that same meaningful connection with my patient if I’m not meeting with them in-person? And how can I ensure their safety?

Being part of a mission-driven organization was key in helping me find my footing. If you’re thinking about becoming a virtual therapist, I highly recommend finding a telehealth agency that can help you navigate through that initial learning curve. I joined AbleTo because of their comprehensive resources including ongoing training, technical support, community of clinical experts, and access to a 24/7 hotline.

“Delivering care when it’s convenient for the patient can be challenging if it’s in-person, but virtual therapy has helped to cultivate a more accommodating environment.”

How patients are thriving with virtual therapy

Regardless of what telehealth provider I worked with, the benefits of being able to deliver remote care have constantly far outweighed what I might miss out on with not having in-person sessions.

  1. Building meaningful connections: Throughout the pandemic, many people have had to go years without significant social interactions. In fact, virtual therapy might be one of the few touchpoints they have with other people. It was (and still is) an important social interaction that has helped thousands of people overcome isolation. It goes without saying that it’s our responsibility as therapists to find creative ways to foster those connections when delivering remote care.
  2. Accessibility and reach: Virtual therapy has been a great solution for a lot of people with barriers to access (time, finances, transportation, etc.). I’ve had patients get off of work at 5:00 PM and five minutes later, we’re having our session. Others would have sessions at 7:00 AM, before the day even started. Due to the pandemic, insurance companies have had to shift their policies concerning therapy. Instead of limiting coverage to in-person sessions, they’re now adding virtual therapy, allowing for a much broader reach.
  3. Convenience for patients: I’ve noticed that patients tend to be more comfortable in their own homes, which helps with the overall experience. They’re more likely to be vulnerable when they’re in familiar surroundings versus coming into an office. Delivering care when it’s convenient for the patient can be challenging if it’s in-person, but virtual therapy has helped to cultivate a more accommodating environment for the patient.
  4. Note-taking while still being engaged: Oftentimes when we’re in person, we have to look down to take notes. This can cause a bit of a break in the flow of the conversation and level of engagement. With virtual therapy, the computer and patient are one, meaning you can take comprehensive notes without interpreting the flow of the conversation between you and your patient.

Is virtual therapy for me?

From our own experience, we know that social work isn’t for the faint of heart. We didn’t commit to the field for the glitz and glamour. We know it’s a selfless profession that’s constantly evolving and responding to the needs of the people we serve. And virtual therapy is the response to decades of barriers to access much needed mental health treatment. It’s an opportunity for us to bridge significant gaps in behavioral care.

So, if you were to ask me if virtual therapy was right for you, I’d give you a loud, resounding, “yes!” On top of the impact we’re having, it’s been an overall great experience. Even with the slight learning curve and adjustments, the trade-off — reaching more patients, better work-life balance, having more control over your schedule, to name a few — has been worth it.

Join our community of clinical social workers

Our team at AbleTo is always looking for compassionate clinical social workers who want to make a difference in people’s lives. We’re actively hiring for both part-time and full-time therapists in all 50 states. Check out our career page to learn more.