Phil Bridges explores the efficacy of online counselling for teenagers and offers advice on how to find the right therapist
Covid-19 has plunged young people into arguably the biggest national crisis since the second world war, with isolation and uncertainty having a profound effect on their mental health. A new study by Young Minds shows many young people are under mounting pressure and struggling to get the right support. Eighty per cent of survey respondents agreed the pandemic had worsened their mental health, reporting increased feelings of anxiety and isolation, plus a loss of coping mechanisms and motivation.
I founded mental health organisation The Mind Map in 2017 after struggling to find a counsellor for my own OCD and anxiety. At The Mind Map, we navigate people to better mental health through counselling, training and awareness raising. Our team of expert counsellors works in a variety of settings, including universities, and with individuals.
Due to Covid-19, we’re seeing an increase in young people seeking online support. Fortunately, research suggests the medium is clinically efficacious and roughly equivalent to traditional therapy. Of course, online communication has its pitfalls. ‘You’re on mute’ must surely be the most used phrase of 2020, and screen freezes can be equally frustrating. Admittedly, as a man in his mid-30s, most of the people I chat to on Zoom are fellow ageing millennials, or boomers. For Gen Z (those currently between 5 and 25 years old), however, online communication is second nature. Our younger counterparts utilise it for everything from gaming with friends, to counselling. And, despite initial concerns, research shows online treatment can be effective for treating many mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Alan Crawford, a BACP accredited counsellor at The Mind Map, said: “I must admit, after practising in person for 10 years, I was initially wary of the pandemic-enforced shift towards online counselling. I doubted how easily I’d be able to pick up on my clients’ energy on screen. But during these fragmented times, online delivery has been refreshing and empowering – both for me and my clients – with some clients now preferring online sessions over face-to-face. For example, a young lady with severe anxiety who I see online, disclosed that meeting a stranger in a strange place for therapy wouldn’t have been possible for her. Instead, she is able to enjoy the comfort and accessibility of being in her own room. I’m also finding clients are more candid with private information when sharing it with me online.”
It’s almost like we’ve stumbled on the sweet spot of therapeutic distance – not too close or far away. Other benefits for young people receiving therapy online are that they don’t have to worry about seeing people they know in the waiting room. Then there are the practical advantages in terms of eliminating transport issues and making scheduling easier. Alan says: “I also work a lot with couples, and online provides a less pressured environment where if either party gets upset, they can leave the room for a break. Previously this might have been a storm out situation, with the session aborted.”
Alan believes children and young people’s lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic. “A lot of young people are expressing anxiety due to the Covid-induced uncertainty around exams and employment. The previous trajectory of job, marriage and children is no longer as certain as it once was, and that brings pressure for young people carving their path.” So, if your teen is struggling with their mental health and you’d like to explore counselling, where do you and they start? And how do you choose the right counsellor?
We know a significant component to successful counselling involves the relationship between the therapist and client. Research shows that an inappropriate therapist and patient match is a significant cause of counselling failure, so it’s vital your teen connects with the therapist. Having an introductory session can be a great way of seeing if the connection is positive. Also make sure you source a counsellor from a recognised directory and that they are an ethical, insured and qualified counsellor. The BACP website is a great place to start. Choosing a BACP registered practitioner offers assurance they meet the standards of proficiency and ethical practice you’d expect.
In addition, you and your teen could consider asking the therapist about their background and qualifications, the type of therapy they practise, and if they have expertise in the problem you’re experiencing. You may also wish to ask practical questions such as how long the therapy session will last and what it will be like.
Young people are facing difficult challenges at the moment. The threat to their mental health is real, and exacerbated by restrictions and uncertainty. We need to be there for them now more than ever before.
Phil Bridges is a qualified journalist and father to two boys, Joe and Bob. He lectures on the MSc in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Wellbeing at Edge Hill University and is the founder of mental health organisation The Mind Map. Follow them on Instagram here.
This feature was originally published in JUNO Winter 2020.