The world, as we all knew it, has ceased to exist with the advent of the Coronavirus. The Covid-19 pandemic is a pandemic of proportions that our world has not seen. This infectious disease, which first reared its ugly head in late 2019, soon spread to the entire world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the then-new COVID 19 pandemic as a ‘Public health emergency of International Concern’. Since then, all the major countries of the world have existed in some other form of lockdown for more than a year and a half now. Schools, colleges, and universities have been shut and operating in virtual mode, and most organizations have moved to remote operations to varying degrees. The Government of India also declared a complete lockdown on March 24, 2020, for 21 days; the lockdown has continued in varying degrees of intensity ever since. While the disease has impacted every aspect of life as we know it, the focus of the current paper is on its impact on mental health, and more specifically, on mental health services. As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept across the world, it caused widespread concern, fear, and stress, all of which are natural and normal reactions to the changing and uncertain situation that everyone finds themselves in (Psychiatry Investigation, June 2020). A literature review done by Kontoangelos, Economou, & Papageorgiou (2020) notes that psychological reactions to pandemics include maladaptive behaviours, and emotional distress, and are particularly vulnerable. Counselling and psychotherapy services are an essential part of the global response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Psychotherapists are qualified to explore with clients the psychological impact of all that the pandemic has brought with it - social isolation, job loss, fear of infection, and grief (Swartz, 2020). The pandemic accelerated the digitisation of many aspects of our lives. As with most other professions, counselling and psychotherapy have moved online. With social distancing and travel restrictions operating everywhere, and health concerns being paramount, telehealth, tele- mental health, or teletherapy has become the preferred mode of contact for both clients as well as therapists. While some amount of telehealth practices already existed in the field of mental health, the vast majority of client-therapist contact happened in person. The pandemic has forced this to change. A paper early on in the pandemic shows that despite the initial wariness of mental health practitioners to embrace telepsychiatry, a 90% shift in outpatient activity to telepsychiatry was seen. Even more heartening was the fact that this shift was accepted by all the concerned stakeholders – patients, psychologists, and psychiatrists (Corruble, E., 2020). A similar trend was seen in Italy, where an entire psychiatric department switched to telemedicine, despite very little experience with telemedicine (Fagiolini A,
Cuomo A, Frank E, 2020).
Since then, the virtual world has become the real world – quite literally!
With 2020 being spent pretty much in varying degrees of lockdown, the past year and a half have confirmed that telehealth is indeed the format of choice to deliver mental health care in these troubled times. Practitioners and patients alike are now realizing the full potential of technology, as they have been left with no choice but to connect virtually, across a screen, at a time when in-person and face-to-face visits are impossible (Torous, Myrick, Rauseo-Ricupero & Firth, 2020). Counsellors have had to develop new techniques and adapt remote technology to deliver appropriate therapy in keeping with social distancing and safety requirements as dictated by the pandemic. As early as January 2020, the National Health Commission of China published guideline documents, recommending emergency psychological crisis intervention for the COVID-19 epidemic through hotlines and online consultations (Liu, Yang, Zhang, Xiang, Liu, Hu, et al., 2020). Despite the steep learning curve that it entailed for professionals and clients alike, psychotherapy through video and telephonic mode has become the mainstay of mental health services delivery throughout the pandemic (Swartz, 2020). Closer home, research has indicated that telepsychiatry has facilitated better access to mental health care, which could arguably be the biggest problem faced during the COVID-19 pandemic (Lodha & De Souza, 2020). Online consultations, e-prescriptions, and virtual therapy sessions have been the only alternative available to most clients. Békés, V., & Aafjes-van Doorn, K. (2020) surveyed to examine how psychotherapists’ attitudes toward online psychotherapy are influenced by their characteristics and professional experiences during the sudden transition from face-to-face to online psychotherapy because of the pandemic. Data were collected from 145 psychotherapists from North America and Europe shortly after a pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization. Participants reported on their past experiences with online psychotherapy, their preparations for their online psychotherapy sessions during the pandemic, the challenges they encountered in online sessions, and their attitudes toward online psychotherapy more generally. Most psychotherapists identified a somewhat positive attitude toward online psychotherapy, suggesting they were likely to use online psychotherapy in the future. Their findings suggest that psychotherapists’ attitudes toward online psychotherapy are influenced by their past experiences, such as psychotherapy modality, clinical experience, and previous online psychotherapy experience as well as their transition experience during the pandemic and their geographic location.
This Blog on 'The Effect of the Pandemic on Counselling Practices' has been contributed by Abhinav Rai.
Abhinav has completed his undergraduate from Delhi University, Hindu College in English Literature. He loves to research and write about everything from seemingly trivial ideas to broad larger-than-life concepts that transcend human grasp. He finds linguistics and psychology incredibly fascinating and wishes to continue research in these fields. He is a wallflower that often builds his bridge to the world through words, metaphors, and interpretations. He is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). GIRP is an IJNGP initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.