Online mental health resources saw a huge user uptick during the pandemic, but virtual therapy is not an entirely new concept. Thirty-six years ago, the Star photographed this little girl at Thistletown Regional Centre in Etobicoke using a program that allowed children with emotional problems to answer intimate questions by computer (such as the now deeply outdated one pictured: “Do you or did you ever dress up in boy’s clothes to play?”). It was developed by psychologist Steven Stein, who at the time believed computers “may find wider use in therapy.”
Turns out, he was right. Toronto-based registered psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton had provided virtual therapy prior to the pandemic, but those sessions were uncommon. “I would say less than a tenth of my practice was online pre-COVID,” she says, “but now I work 100 per cent virtually.”
Singleton has no plans to go back to a physical office. “Most of my clients prefer virtual therapy,” she says, weighing the pros and cons of this new model. “I miss seeing people in person and I do think that we make compromises practising virtually, but it’s worth the trade-offs for most of my clients.”
According to Singleton, virtual therapy (also known as e-therapy, cyber-counselling and telepsychology) can be a lifeline for many, including those with mobility issues, those in remote areas, as well as those with unpredictable schedules. “And some people just feel weird talking face to face (in person) about their private thoughts,” she says. “Researchers call that sense of distance and anonymity enjoyed through e-therapy the ‘disinhibition effect’ and it can be a real asset to us.”
Singleton, who also has a PhD in philosophy focused on the dynamics of love and sex, specializes in relationship and sex therapy. Since she often works with couples and those in polyamorous relationships, she finds it far easier to coordinate schedules online than in person. “Partners often join from different locations, which is a mixed bag,” she says. “It creates latitude with scheduling, and I believe it can actually keep the temperature down for high-conflict couples.
“But,” she adds, “there is a sense of intimacy that gets compromised when partners aren’t sitting next to one another, within physical and energetic proximity.”
Singleton says there are good reasons traditional counselling happens in person in a therapist’s office: “There is something about the sanctity of the room, the neutrality, as opposed to being in your own space.”
Still, she believes virtual therapy, through video, phone, text or email, will likely be the new norm. “That’s both a good thing and something that should make us somewhat apprehensive or at least cautious,” she says, adding, “I’m ambivalent about large corporate structures that are dispensing virtual therapy.”
With so much socializing and work now taking place online, Singleton has noticed a shift in how people conduct intimate relationships, especially considering the rise of online dating, sexting, and virtual sex. “I have seen people question the way they do sex and love during the pandemic,” she says. “(So) it may make sense for discussions about those relationships to happen online as well.”
Singleton says virtual therapy can also occasionally offer unexpected insights for therapists and their clients. “I’ve had the usual Zoom mishaps of catching a partner in their underwear,” Singleton says with a laugh, “and I adore pandemic pets.
“I have met so many animals, and I honestly think that it can be a wonderful asset for some clients to have their pal with them.”
SPECIAL TO THE STAR