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Telephone therapy: the pros and cons

Elizabeth Coop June 28, 2020

1 in 4 people have a diagnosable mental health condition. I’m one of those people. I have anxiety disorders and I’ve been treated for clinical depression. I was due to start a six-week, in-person therapy course in March. Then, there was a sudden bump in the road. Due to social distancing measures, I was offered telephone therapy.

The ups and downs

I had mixed feelings about baring my soul to somebody I had never met. Initially, I flirted with the idea of holding off until I could go into the office. However, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was feeling particularly low. The covid-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health issues for many people, including me. So, I decided to give it a go.

Overall, the sessions were beneficial. I learned some valuable cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to curb anxious overthinking. A 2012 study found that CBT delivered by telephone is just as effective as when taught face-to-face. The weekly call gave me a semblance of a schedule, which alleviated the stress of suddenly losing my usual routine. In the end, it was a relief to share my problems with an objective listener.

Although, it wasn’t a wholly positive experience. Even now, it feels jarring that I have no idea what my therapist looks like. Crying on the phone to a stranger was somewhat comforting, but mostly odd and upsetting. With the abrupt end of each call, I felt a jolt of loneliness.

I’ve now reflected on my six weeks of telephone therapy and I have some questions. Am I the only person who finds it slightly strange? Are there unavoidable limitations? Do therapists think it’s effective? In an attempt to answer these questions, I spoke to a fellow client and three experts.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

James: therapy client 

James began telephone therapy during the pandemic. He sought help to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. So far, he has noticed multiple benefits. He can easily slot sessions into busy work days and appreciates the flexibility.

Still, James has encountered a few downfalls. He says, “I can see why it could help someone to speak more freely. Still, I think I’d prefer someone to actually be there. I feel I could be a bit more open with them. They could read my body language, too”.

Sometimes, he has felt disconnected from the therapist. “You lose that human contact and empathy. The time slot ends and you are cut off. It can be quite abrupt”, he says. Despite these cons, James feels that telephone therapy has been helpful. There are obvious parallels between our experiences.

Now, what do the professionals have to say?  

Nick Hatter: life coach 

Nick Hatter is a London-based life coach. He is an accredited enneagram practitioner and qualified psychodynamic/NLP master coach. “A lot of my life coaching has been done purely over the phone with some clients”, he says. Nick charges the same rate for all types of therapy. 

However, “anything involving trauma is quite difficult to do over the phone”. Nick prefers to see these clients in person and observe their physiological responses, in order to ensure their safety.

Telephone therapy can be more comfortable for both the therapist and client. “I can relax more, get comfortable and I don’t have to dress smartly”. Nick is open about his personal experience of therapy. “There are times when phone therapy and being able to get through to someone very quickly has been fantastic”, he says. 

Jerilee Claydon: psychotherapist and counsellor 

Jerilee Claydon works in Hertfordshire. She is a clinical psychotherapist, parenting educator and newborn observation practitioner. Despite reports that the pandemic has amplified mental health issues for many people, referrals to Jerilee’s practice have not increased.

Jerilee believes those who are totally new to therapy often prefer to meet their counsellor, in order to feel a sense of trust and security. “I think if you’ve had therapy before, you’re more likely to utilise it online or on the phone”, she says. 

Jerilee finds women to be more receptive to telephone therapy than men. She observes, “men much prefer to be in the room” and require physical reassurance. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, male clients have elected to pause treatment.

For Jerilee, nonverbal cues are significant. “We communicate the truth better nonverbally. I think it is better than nothing, but I personally don’t find the telephone therapy effective enough”.

Aga Kehinde: EFT practitioner, coach and nurse 

Aga Kehinde is a registered nurse and works for the NHS as a lead for the health and wellbeing pharmacology division. She is an integrative health coach and emotion-focused therapy (EFT) practitioner, supporting clients through challenging life and business experiences.

She uses the telephone to “aid clients through very stressful moments”, guiding them through quick breathing and grounding techniques. Aga believes, “it’s not about the physical space. It is about the energetical space and the space that we create between us. If that space is created virtually, I don’t see it having a big impact”. 

Aga has an international client base and is familiar with using virtual technologies. Some clients are not equipped to receive online therapy. “The support can be on a technical level, as well as an emotional and psychological level”, she says.

The Takeaway

So, is telephone therapy effective? Well, there isn’t a straightforward answer. While this particular medium has obvious pros and cons, its success ultimately hinges on the client’s preferences.

Like many others, I had no choice but to try telephone therapy during lock-down and I’m glad I did. Although I would prefer to meet with someone, I think telephone therapy is surely better than no therapy at all.  

Disclaimer: I am not a qualified mental health professional. Any advice I give is not medical, but based on my own personal experiences. Anybody experiencing mental health problems should contact a doctor/relevant healthcare professional.

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