How do you select an online counsellor or psychologist?
Selecting an online counsellor or psychologist can be especially difficult if you looking for a therapist who can truly attend to your mental health needs and at the same time a therapeutic alliance. To complicate things further, all of us have expectations about our therapists and how the therapy process will begin, proceed and end. When you select a counsellor or psychologist, there should be a balance between your needs and demands and, what the professional can tangibly offer to you because each therapist has unique skills, qualifications, experiences and strengths.
What kind of skills and experience should I be looking for in an online counsellor or psychologist?
In the traditional counselling or psychological session where face-to-face interaction is paramount, the counsellor or psychologist’s forte can range from training in cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) or even hypnosis, just to mention a few of the well-known techniques and skills used in therapy. The counsellor or psychologist that you work with should have experience relevant to your condition and ongoing needs. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual -5 identifies some of the areas of experience your therapist may have (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), but is certainly not exhaustive:
- Bipolar and Related Disorders
- Depressive Disorders
- Anxiety Disorders
- Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
- Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders
- Dissociative Disorders
- Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders
- Feeding and Eating Disorders
- Elimination Disorders
- Sleep-Wake Disorders
- Sexual Dysfunctions
- Gender Dysphoria
- Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders
- Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders
- Neurocognitive Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Paraphilic Disorders
What level of qualifications does the online therapist need?
The level of qualifications required of a counsellor or psychologist varies quite significantly between different jurisdictions. For example, as of the date at which this article is written, in Singapore, there currently is no legislation that informs regarding the appropriate level of education that a counsellor or psychologist needs. Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if this changes in future!
Often the differing levels of education and training serve to fuel an ongoing debate as to which types of training is better than the other. For example, the evaluation of the Better Access Initiative by Medicare Australia by Prikis et. Al. (2011) amongst general practitioners, clinical psychologists and non-clinical psychologists demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in presenting concerns, similar to effect sizes from overseas studies. Prikis et. Al. (2011) also demonstrated was that there was no evidence that a clinically endorsed psychologist provides more effective treatment than a non-clinically endorsed psychologist. Clinically endorsed psychologists and non-clinically endorsed psychologist differ specifically in the manner in which postgraduate training obtained. While adequate education and training are required to ensure that counsellors and psychologists have the appropriate training to protect members of the public, it is important to carefully consider if there are organisations with a vested interest in ensuring the postgraduate programs remain as a condition to entry into these professions due to a quota-based or financial incentives.
That being said, most counsellors and psychologists will have an undergraduate degree and some form of postgraduate training which can involve clinical hours, supervision, continuing professional development within a structured program that has been set out as part of the requirements of a governing body or alternatively through a university academic program. Your therapist should be able to demonstrate competency in diagnosis, assessment, treatment and writing diagnostic reports, regardless of their training.
A question that is often overlooked that may be as important as the counsellor’s or psychologist’s education and experience are, do they have an appropriate level of professional indemnity for the assessment and therapy sessions they plan to undertake. The professional indemnity insurer has to take into account multiple factors in determining the premiums involved in a counsellor’s or psychologist’s professional indemnity, however, what seems concerning is that we have observed a trend of counsellors and psychologists treating and working without an appropriate level of professional indemnity.
The strength of the therapeutic alliance.
During the course of the therapeutic relationship, each therapist may seek unique metrics, criteria or milestones that a client is attempting the steps required to go from where they started to the point where they want to be, fulfilling their therapy goals and completing the path to recovery. One of the key factors that aids in the accomplishment of these steps, goals and recovery is the therapeutic alliance.
Is there any difference between selecting an online counsellor or psychologist versus a face-to-face counsellor?
Similar to the traditional face-to-face counselling setting, an online counsellor or psychologist will come with their own unique set of skills, qualifications, experiences and strengths.
We covered in the article “Online Counselling – Who Would Benefit & the Advantages” and “Online Counselling Services – Considering the Limitations “, the good and bad points of online counselling services respectively which includes what may work or may not work with certain types of candidates and conditions.
For a first-timer in online counselling, ensuring that the counsellor/ psychologist and client meet the software and hardware requirements is of primary importance! You could have the best counsellor/psychologist around, but if your connection is unacceptable and this is not addressed early on, the therapeutic alliance can erode quickly.
- Adequate processing power in your computer
- A good camera
- Clear audio capacity
- Strong internet broadband or reliable internet connection
If these are met, the quality of video and audio input will be great and have almost no lag time.
Additionally, these issues should be covered by your counsellor:
- Any confidentiality, privacy issues or disclaimers
- Any registration issues for the video chat software should be appropriately addressed early on between the client and the online counsellor
- Payment issues should be clarified early on as well. (Whether the payment is completed by credit card, PayPal or alternative internet banking payments)
We have a page and links dedicated to setting up web chat software if you need help, please refer to our article on getting set up.
On top of being able to troubleshoot the logistics involved prior to and during the counselling session, the same soft skills that you expect from a face-to-face counsellor/psychologist should be present in an online counselling session (this list is not exhaustive).
The online counsellor/psychologist should:
- be calm
- be patient
- have a warm disposition
- be able to lower your guard
- not interrupt you
- have compassion
- be sensitive to your situation
- allow openness about your feelings and thoughts
- be silent when necessary
- ensure personal areas of your life are kept private
- be people you can confide in
- accept you unconditionally
- keep your well being as top priority during the session
- be there to guide you
- display empathy
- attempt to understand things from your perspective
- give you an opportunity to convey your situation, concerns and express yourself
- have the confidence and faith that you will be able to overcome your predicament
- allow you to be true to your identity without being assessed in a negative manner
- respect your time while in the session, without distractions, interruptions or being hurried or forced to finish
- care about what you have to say because without you communicating the predicament, the session cannot move forward
- use the Socratic questioning method
- welcome and respect you as the main agent of change in your life during therapy
- have knowledge of culturally diverse, lifespan specific and mental health issues
- understand you already operate in your own social and family system and take this into account
- exercise judgement when a face-to-face assessment or counselling session is required
- be aware of racism, discrimination, stereotypes, stigma, cultural issues, social issues relevant in kind to your circumstances
- value confidentiality of information as well as ethical behaviour in interactions
- find tailor-made solutions for you
Highlight to your counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist early on if an undisturbed space is available for your online counselling session. If you cannot find one then face-to-face counselling may be required for safety, confidentiality and privacy issues.
The clients we work with are happy to work with us for the following reasons.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Pirkis, J., Ftanou, M., Williamson, M., Machlin, A., Spittal, M.J., Bassilios, B., Harris, M. (2011). Australia’s Better Access initiative: an evaluation. The Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2011 Sep;45(9):726-39. doi: 10.3109/00048674.2011.594948. PMID: 21888609.