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Making the Most Out of Virtual Mental Health Appointments

A couple of weeks ago, my usual evening anxiety — tight chest, unsettled stomach and dread that followed almost everything I did — started leaking into the rest of the day. I mostly lay down. Ate leftover pork, then lay down. Edited six pages, lay down. I tried to sleep. But sharp, gasping panic squeezed my eyes and fists shut.

Talking to my therapist and psychiatrist over the phone helped me pull through. With their suggestions, the discomfort slowly lifted.

I didn’t enjoy my first telemedicine sessions, sitting in an empty room saying all my thoughts to a floating voice. But with the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain that can lead to serious health complications, most mental health providers have switched to virtual appointments for the time being.

Over the last month of shelter-in-place, I learned ways to make telemedicine work better for me.

1. Sit in a comfortable, private area.

I don’t want to be distracted by staring at a messy space or feel self-conscious that my partner can overhear. It helps me to sit up rather than kicking back in bed or on the couch. I feel like somebody else is present, and I can pay attention better.

2. Describe your reactions.

Whether communicating over the phone or a video call, providers have limited ability to read our expressions or body language. It’s harder for them to adjust to our reactions. I try to describe my reactions clearly, such as: “It makes me feel discouraged to think about what you said” or “I don’t think I’m very interested in that suggestion.” It keeps the conversation more focused on my concerns.

3. Be more assertive about your time.

Silences in-person with my provider usually happen when I’m thinking or processing. But since providers can’t see my body language over telemedicine, they might assume that my silence means I have nothing more to say. A couple of my sessions ended early because my provider read this silence as initiating the end of the session, and I didn’t speak up. I try to be more assertive now about giving myself time. It’s also helpful to organize my ideas of what I’d like to cover before the session, so I’m prepared to transition topics at those points.

4. Check for possible misunderstandings.

I can more easily misinterpret my provider’s suggestions over telemedicine. I might think they’re being pushy or ignoring what I’m saying. I’ve learned to ask clarifying questions when I catch myself experiencing an emotional reaction during the session.

5. Don’t be afraid to interrupt if you need to.

Without in-person contact, managing the conversation’s flow can be a challenge. In my first sessions, I often hesitated to cut in. I ended up forgetting my point as my provider continue to talk, unaware that I wanted to speak. I realized I needed to be more confident about bringing up my own thoughts and needs.

Some people might prefer the convenience of telemedicine sessions — no commutes or waiting rooms. I miss seeing my therapist and psychiatrist in person. But I wasn’t counting on being able to talk to them at all, when shelter-at-home started. I’m trying to make it work, to stay healthy and stable — to hold on, until we pull through.

For anyone struggling with their mental health due to COVID-19, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Sviatlana_St