Technology in Mental Health Treatment

Melissa Hansen, MS, LPC

Technology has been developing, and is developing, at an exponential rate. We interact with it in countless ways throughout our daily lives. Technological advances always precede legal and ethical parameters. While technology, of course, is designed to enhance life, there are often unforeseen drawbacks, side effects, and even detriments. For example, cell phones were designed to increase our ability to communicate and, in some ways, they have enhanced communication, but in some significant ways they have hindered communication. We have no idea of all the social and emotional effects of technology when it is functioning well and certainly not when it breaks down.

Technology has been used in mental health treatment for a long time. One example of this is the suicide hotline which has been around for decades. In the most crucial moments – when someone’s life is at stake – one can call and speak with a complete stranger who might be hundreds of miles away. And the military has long been using technology in mental health treatment to work with personnel around the world in order to offer consistency of treatment. In fact, their set-up is such that a counselor licensed in one state, who ordinarily cannot practice outside that state (nor can any of their clients be outside that state), will receive reciprocity and can practice in any United States jurisdiction with military personnel.

There are many clinicians in the mental health field who are resistant or terrified to use technology due to the many drawbacks and potential pitfalls and their lack of knowledge about it. There are certainly many complications. As you can imagine there are numerous issues that are raised when bringing technology into a process as intimate as mental healthcare. And while some clinicians are able and willing to do phone sessions (and many do not realize the legal, ethical, or practical concerns) they would never dream of doing a video session.

There are also treatment concerns, particularly around safety issues (like suicidal ideation) and these must be considered. This is an area that is growing very quickly and, like most areas where technology is concerned, more and more people want to utilize it, the young in particular who do not remember life before everyone had a device in hand.

Of course, there will always be an essential place for face-to-face, physically present mental healthcare. And some practitioners will probably resist using technology to the degree to which they are able. But there are some arguments for it offering benefits to those with whom we work. Recently there was a significant snowfall and had there been a set-up with encrypted, HIPPA secure technology that was legally, ethically, and thoughtfully put together, it might have offered clients a consistency of care that they were not afforded otherwise. Some clients with high social anxiety prefer this treatment modality, particularly if they are comfortable with technology. In fact, some clients might seek treatment they would not otherwise, due to the intimidating nature of being physically present. There are a remarkable number of resources available if you are interested in learning more about telehealth:

http://www.americantelemed.org/home

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Shook, M. (Producer). (2017, November 24). Online Counseling and Telemental Health: A Conversation with Telehealth Certification Institute’s Ray Barrett [Audio Podcast]. The Thoughtful Counselor. Retrieved from https://wp.me/p7R6fn-hS