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How Therapists can Protect the Gift of Therapy during COVID-19

I wasn’t trained for this. No time during my doctoral program did we talk about how to help clients through a pandemic. And, if a professor did say something about a freakin’ pandemic, I didn’t pay attention because it just didn’t matter. Not applicable. So here we are. Supporting others. Many times we are able to curb our personal reactions and feelings with a client because each experience is unique on the personal level. Yet, this is a whole new ballgame of shelving your personal motives and reactions. This is global and existential. This impacts me as it impacts them. How do we protect ourselves AND our clients from less than ideal therapy treatment during a pandemic? What is our PPE?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) helps protect a worker from hazardous environments. In addition, PPE helps contain the hazardous material so that it does not spread. During a time like this, how can an environment be dangerous for mental health workers? How can we protect ourselves from bad work boundaries while doing telehealth? How can we process the grief and loss clients are experiencing when we know we share many of the same realities? How do we contain the pain so that we protect other clients? And why the hell is this soo much more exhausting!?

First, have good work boundaries. Set a schedule. See clients at the same time every week just like before. Find that work space that feels like your therapy space. When I get into therapy mode, I have a routine. I cleanse my breath, relax my body, grab my hot and cold beverage, touch my toes, adjust my chair and find my client sitting in the waiting room. Do the things you did before. That is some of your equipment to protect yourself from burnout.

Second, be compassionate with yourself. Most of us were not trained to do telehealth. Allow the learning curve and know that it will get easier. This is all new and take a moment to be grateful for technology! Sign up for CEs and webinars. There are so many resources right now! This will equip you to protect clients and ensure ethical care.

Third, mourn the loss of not having your client sitting with you, in your therapy room. What a special and privileged role we have as a therapist. It is rewarding to have your client physically sit in front of you. It helps you stay connected and on track. Now, more than ever, I feel that gift. Not being able to see my client face to face in the room is heartbreaking. Let them know that but don’t let that limitation prevent you from providing ideal care. We were trained to have the person physically in the room with us, reading the energy and dynamics between you and your client. I ask my clients, “are you crying right now?” or “feel like you might cry?”. I ask “if we were in our therapy room right now, how would I know what you were thinking or feeling?”. I say “I can really feel your sadness” or “I can still really see how this is impacting you”. I continue to use process questions. I equip us by bringing us back to that space so that we can protect the process of therapy.

Fourth, and possibly the most important and exhausting, work even harder to curb those personal reactions and motives. If you are not doing telehealth in your office, you are in a personal space. Whether you are doing phone or video sessions, you are more likely to wander in your mind or in your environment. Work harder to not do that. I have to put more energy into this effort and it is worth it. Clients need to feel that you are present with them and only thinking about them. You have to protect your client’s space from your stuff.

So , yes, I wasn't trained for this. But I was trained. The COVID-19 outbreak is a special time to be a therapist and to continue to help so many others with their experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Do so proudly and with confidence. Continue to instill a sense of hope and positivity for your clients. No matter how unknown all of this is, make it known that you care and will be consistent with treatment.

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