New to Tele-mental Health During COVID-19? Learn From a Seasoned Therapist

Dr. Thommi Lawson

With the rise in use of tele-mental health, particularly during this time of quarantine and shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, we asked veteran tele-mental health provider and Motivo Supervisor, Thommi Lawson, PhD, LPC, ACS, BC-TMH, who has run an tele-mental health (TMH) private practice since 2014 to share some of the early lessons she learned and how to best prepare for a transition to the virtual “room.” 

Thommi transitioned to TMH work six years ago when she made the decision that she could no longer be a long distance caregiver and needed to move geographically closer to her mother. 

“I closed my practice in Atlanta, relocated to Savannah, and shifted my practice to 100% TMH.  I needed the option to work from home…well, my mother’s home,” she says. 

At the time, a friend of Thommi’s was beta-launching a TMH platform and asked if she would be willing to test it out. While the timing of this opportunity – having a HIPPA-compliant way to connect – was fortuitous, it also highlighted the need not just for technology, but also tele-specific training.

“I did not know how to make a therapeutic connection with my clients,” Thommi remembers of those early days. “Some techniques and approaches do not easily translate virtually. I had to learn how to create a therapeutic working alliance with new clients.”

Prepare for Hurdles 

In addition to learning new ways to create rapport and trust, Thommi identifies the level of competency required to be a remote practitioner as one of the biggest hurdles to get started with an online practice.

“You need to empower yourself with knowledge in a variety of areas,” she says. She advises putting time and effort behind developing a high level of proficiency in telemental health-specific ethical considerations, software requirements, state requirements, clients’ medical insurance limitations, and obtaining professional liability insurance inclusive of TMH. 

The next hurdle she sees is choosing and mastering your TMH platform of choice.  “Most are user friendly,” she reassures. But the same way you want to be comfortable and have command over your physical space, you want to make sure you know how to troubleshoot tech issues and make video features, like screensharing, happen seamlessly. 

Last but not least, she points out that similarly to cultivating your approach in a physical space, that is also necessary in a virtual environment. “It takes time,” Thommi says. “It‘s not something you can just copy and paste. Extend yourself grace and connect with peers who have experience and inquire about best practices.”

For her practice, Thommi uses SimplePractice, which she describes as a fully integrated system that allows clients to schedule sessions, pay invoices, and complete intake paperwork all online.  She can file claims as well as send secure messages to her clients and it offers a TMH platform.

When it comes to rate setting, Thommi’s process is no different than if she were seeing clients in-person. She accepts insurance and is on a variety of EAP panels. She also offers sliding scale rates for those with financial need. 

Tele-Training & Resources

Some additional resources Thommi likes for gaining and honing tele-mental health knowledge and skills are The Online Therapy Institute, founded by Kate Anthony and DeeAnna Merz Nagel. “This site has tons of resources, including an online, self-directed course that meets compliance requirements to conduct online therapy and online supervision in the state of Georgia, for example,” Thommi says. 

During the Coronavirus specifically, Thommi shares that The Center for Credentialing and Education has a COVID resources page with a list of approved training programs to become a Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider (BC-TMH). Another resource she likes is the TeleMental Health Training Certificate (THTC) Program, Online Self-Study

Whether going virtual is a long-term career path or a short-term COVID-19 solution, we can’t reiterate Thommi’s compassionate advice enough: Allow yourself patience and grace. Tele-mental health work requires it’s own unique skills, you shouldn’t expect to be an expert the second that camera goes on! It’s a journey and we’re here to help! 

Are you a supervisor with tips for supporting those who are new to tele-mental health? Let us know! Email emily@wearemotivo.com to share your ideas.

Emily Donahue

Emily Donahue

Emily Donahue holds a Master's in Mental Health Counseling from Northwestern University. She works as a limited permit therapist at a private practice in Brooklyn, earning her clinical and supervision hours for full licensure. She has a special interest in women and alcohol use and her dream is to meet Irvin Yalom one day.

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