From her virtual private practice in Baton Rouge, Shameka Mitchell Williams helps people who are overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Her focus is singular: help them recover from pernicious experiences and toxic relationships. “I hold space for people who are hurt and confused to talk about what that relationship or marriage is really like without any judgment about how they should feel,” she says.
A graduate of Louisiana State University and Washington University in St. Louis, Williams is a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Louisiana and Texas. She says she believes in the importance of helping her clients understand how their thinking shapes their experience and also how they are influenced by societal systems.
Williams, who is the owner of The Chrysalis Center, LLC, is one of 300 licensed therapists in Louisiana who offers online video counseling according to the Psychology Today database. This Pensiri: A Talk with Shameka Mitchell Williams explores online video therapy, who can benefit from it, and why.
As a therapist with more than a decade of experience in community-based programs, schools, psychiatric hospitals, and correctional facilities, you’ve seen mental health professionals expand their services from in-person counseling to teletherapy and now to online video therapy. How should we be defining therapy and who can practice or treat people with therapeutic needs?
SW: Therapy is a specialized, systematic, formal interaction between a mental health professional and a client (an individual, couple, family, or group) during which a therapeutic relationship is established to help resolve symptoms of mental disorder, psychosocial stress, relationship problems, and/or difficulties coping in the social environment. It is also to help the client achieve specified goals for well-being. The term “therapy” is used interchangeably with counseling. While many therapists provide both therapy and counseling, not every counselor is qualified to provide therapy. The term “counselor” is often applied to highly trained mental health, education, or legal professionals, but it is also used for volunteers with minimal training and for paid workers who provide guidance and structure in group settings (as in camp and dorm hall counselors).
SW: Online therapy is definitely a growing service. It may have first begun taking shape as early as the 1960s, and it began growing as most people know it today in the early 2000s. Earlier names for it included teletherapy and telemental health care since clinicians started offering sessions by telephone before beginning to utilize email, chats, and video. Today, many clinicians offer a mix of in-person and online services, and some offer online services exclusively. There even exists an International Society for Mental Health Online, which formed in 1997.
How can we tell if we need or could benefit from therapy? (in general)
SW: If you are experiencing distressing changes in your normal mood or functioning that are present more days than not for a period of at least two weeks, you may want to consider consulting with a professional. It can be good to start with talking to a medical professional to rule out any physiological reasons for the changes.
Should there be some type of diagnosis or referral to seek therapy?
SW: You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental disorder to benefit from therapy. If you are simply feeling overwhelmed with what life is throwing at you, and your usual coping mechanisms are not working, you may benefit from having a therapist to help you identify and remove obstacles that are blocking the progress you’d like to make. An obstacle could be as simple as a negative thinking pattern that you do not recognize on your own.
What are signs that a person may need therapy?
SW: You could benefit from therapy if you find yourself.
- Eating more or less than usual
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Having unusual difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Experiencing intrusive thoughts that are distressing
- Worrying or feeling nervous more than usual
- Withdrawing or isolating yourself from family and friends
Are there any specific conditions or needs that someone would have that would make them a good candidate for online therapy over in-house therapy?
SW: People who suffer from mental health disorders that make going out in public difficult, such as agoraphobia
- People with limited physical mobility and those who do not drive or who have limited access to transportation
- People who live far away from their nearest mental health professionals
- Stay-at-home mothers with young children who would rather not arrange childcare and other caregivers who cannot be away for long periods of time
- People who need/want a provider who is credentialed in a specialty, such as an intensive trauma-focused treatment, energy psychology, or perinatal/postpartum mental health
- People who would not seek in-person treatment due to fear of being recognized at/near a therapist’s office
What are the pros of online therapy?
SW: Convenience, Efficacy, and Privacy. Research has found online therapy to be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy for many issues including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What are the cons?
SW: Online therapy is not appropriate for clients who are a danger to themselves or others (i.e., suicidal or homicidal) or for those whose mental health is seriously impaired as with psychosis, delusions, or uncontrolled mania. Some elements of nonverbal communication will be missed when the client and therapist can only see each other from the cropped view of a screen. Confidentiality could become an issue if the therapist is not using HIPAA-secure software, sites, or apps or if clients are not careful with securing their own electronic devices. Some insurance companies do not cover online therapy.
Williams admonishes anyone considering online video therapy to do additional research to make sure their potential therapist is qualified and licensed to provide the service they are seeking.
By Candace J. Semien
Jozef Syndicate reporter