When your life is in chaos turning up for regular counselling sessions can be difficult. Ask any youth counsellor or CAMHS therapist.
When your counselling service is a 60 minute or £8 bus ride away you might be forgiven for missing sessions or even not trying it in the first place.
When the counselling centre is in the middle of town you might not feel safe walking there on an evening.
However, Streetwise are tackling these problems with digital gusto and savvyness.
Streetwise are one of the UK’s first youth services to offer online counselling to young people. Based in Newcastle upon Tyne and funded by Comic Relief their experience highlights the benefits and downsides of delivering digitally assisted human services to young people.
How Online Counselling Works
Streetwise offer three online counselling formats to choose from (or combine):
- Weekly emails – your counsellor spends an hour replying to your weekly email
- 50 minute IM sessions – talking to your counsellor via text, links and images
- 50 minute Skype sessions – talking via video or voice link up
Sometimes young people find it easier to get to know their counsellor through online sessions before moving to face to face meetings. This can be a really helpful way for young people who might otherwise find it difficult to build up trust in the service and their counsellor.
How We Know it Works
Darren Humphrey and Jan Albertsen of Streetwise talked to us about their experience of delivering online counselling. The stats speak for themselves “young people stay engaged for longer and show up for more sessions than those who sign up for face-to-face counselling”.
3 Reasons Why it Works
1. Clients Experience More Power, Increased Control and Feel Safer
- They can choose the level of engagement at any one moment – from 0-100%
- Its easier for them to leave the conversation
- Silence feels more comfortable than when a counsellor is physically present
- The lack of eye contact leads to less expectancy communicated by the counsellor or experienced by the young person
- They can choose length of emails
2. More Choice of Media
Young people report that being able to communicate via other means that just voice helps them to express more feelings, more clearly. Streetwise’s clients use images via email or IM, videos via private shares and written words, poems, and journal excerpts especially in emails.
3. Increased Accessibility
Being able to engage online immediately reduces transport costs and shortens travel time for clients. Young people who would otherwise be walking to an evening session feel safer. They also say that for non-skype video clients the anonymity of the service makes it more accessible; having never seen their counsellor’s face young people feel less judged and less inhibited about expressing themselves.
Sometimes Jan and Darren find that being online also creates barriers to accessing the service. These can include:
- Young people’s experience of teachers and other formal relationships with adults can be projected onto the online counselling relationship e.g. conduct and grammar becomes more formal and emoticons less used than in peer-peer relationships
- Getting set up for the service can be a multistep process e.g. Getting consent forms completed and signed takes longer than when meeting face to face. For email counselling hush mail accounts need to be activated.
- Potential referrers (e.g. other youth services) whoa re uneducated may perceive online councselling as less useful or not yet trust it, making them less likely to offer it to young people.
- Technical problems. Like any other digital service provider Streetwsie find that sometimes the tech just doesn’t work. Skype connections go down and people’s phones lose reception.
- Time lapse between exchanges between counsellor and client can be much longer. It can feel like slower progress. For example while skype exchanges can happen at the same pace as a face to face session, IM exchanges happen at about a third or the speed and email exchanges happen weekly (though contain a lot more depth per exchange). Though progress may seem slower to the counsellor there may be value for young people in the slower pace of email or IM exchanges. Streetwise don’t yet have enough data to be able to judge comparative values to young people.
- Adapting back into life after a session can be harder for young people because they may not get much time to process what’s happened. After a face to face session they would usually find that travelling home gave them time to integrate the session. However if they’ve done a session from home sometimes they find themselves ‘plunged’ back into family life or difficult situations before they have finished processing the session.
Jan and Darren say that “as we get more experienced we’re finding our way around these barriers – e.g. by creating advice sheets on how to step back into everyday life after an online counselling session”.