The human connection of virtual therapy

Loss, isolation and fear are impacting mental health conditions during COVID-19


By Megan Camlasaran


The stranger on my laptop asks why I chose to start therapy. I’m fidgeting in my seat, trying to find a definite answer, but I am also distracted, hoping no one in my family comes home and overhears my session. I try to steady my voice, all the while hoping the internet connection stays strong so I won’t have to repeat myself again. Before I know it, 30 minutes have passed and my therapist says she’s looking forward to seeing me next week.


Acknowledging mental health and searching for support is a lot to handle alone, especially when facing the added difficulties of the pandemic, like isolation, a loss of motivation, and the infamous Zoom fatigue. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 50 per cent of Candians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began.


Sitting down at my desk and staring at screens all day was not how I envisioned my second year of university. Instead of paying attention to dreadful three-hour zoom lectures, I daydream about chasing stories around the city for the journalism lab that I would’ve seen all my friends in, where we’d be laughing and stressing to meet our deadlines together. The loss of human connection and non-stop screen time is what gradually diminished the last shred of motivation I had left.


I felt my personal well-being take a turn for the worse and I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.


Stephanie Charitar, an analyst for inclusion and diversity at CPP Investments, decided to seek treatment for her depression and anxiety in 2019. She was referred to a cognitive behavioural therapy program called Bounce Back, a national self-led program which provides skills and techniques that help people in coping with low mood and worry, free of cost.


Charitar would make sure no one else was home, settle into her room on her bed, pull out the workbooks the program mailed to her and dial in to her phone therapy session. With her therapist on speaker, she would take notes in her little book. She describes her anxiety levels as always being high, and her thoughts being “all over the place.” It always felt like she was having mini panic attacks.


Once she started therapy and taking anti-anxiety medication, she felt a little more at peace. “It was weird but nice. My mind was quiet for once. It didn’t have those constant self-doubts, overthinking thoughts, my mind wasn’t racing 24/7 anymore and it was nice.”


As psychiatric care becomes widely available online, services like Inkblot, Talkspace, and Betterhelp are getting more recognition and attention for their commitment to ensuring people have access to affordable and readily available therapy.


After Charitar finished the Bounce Back program, she decided to try Inkblot, where there are options to call, text or video call with therapists. While she was uncomfortable at first, Charitar says that feeling eased gradually. “It was like stepping stones, getting to know them and them getting to know me helped.”


As social beings who thrive off making connections with other humans, the fear is not being able to connect to a therapist the same way online. However, what matters most to people is that the human element remains the same, according to Dr. Bruce Fage, a psychiatrist at CAMH.


As stated by CAMH, 30 per cent of Canadians did not seek help for their mental health pre-pandemic because of barriers like cost, language, and transportation.


Virtual therapy provides solutions to many of these barriers and allows more Canadians access to the psychiatric care they need. Fage believes that the convenience of virtual therapy will encourage more to seek treatment and will become part of a normalized routine, even after patients have the option to return to in-person visits.


Charitar doesn't see herself ever doing in-person therapy sessions, as she now prefers the flexibility and accessibility of online. She is able to schedule sessions in between work or after a long day — whatever works best for her.


Much like patients, therapists are also trying to navigate their way through these changes. Fage did a phone session with a patient for the first time, and it went well. They were able to talk as freely as they would have in-person. “We want to keep people comfortable and we work really hard to do that.”


In May 2020, the federal government promised $240 million toward mental health resources and better e-therapy options. CAMH noticed video therapy sessions growing from around 300 per month to more than 8000 by December 2020.


Ziyad Patail, a digital producer at Markets.to, has been doing in-person therapy since 2016, and has since had to attend virtual sessions. At first, Patail didn’t think the sessions would go well — as someone who believes in the human, in-person element of healing — but he is now appreciative of being able to access any care at all.


Patail says therapy is a “sounding board” for his mind and emotions, “an accountability partner for life.”


For me, therapy provides much needed perspective and clarity when my mind is overwhelmed. At times, I feel like I’m running a constant marathon, trying to catch up with the endless to-do lists that seem near impossible to achieve from the one corner of my home that has now also become my workspace.


Struggling with mental health, especially in a pandemic, can be a very lonely thing.


I feel human connection becoming a faded memory in my mind. I miss seeing a friend across the street and running up to them to embrace them in a long-overdue hug. I miss seeing the unintentional smiles on people’s faces when they see something that makes them happy, the smiles between strangers who walk past each other and the smiles that let you know you’re not alone.


I discovered that virtual therapy can be a solid source of support for some. It is guiding people to take care of their own well-being, while also maintaining connections with others no matter the distance between.


Patail describes how, in the midst of uncertainty, he finds solace in knowing that people are experiencing similar emotions.


I didn’t realize how much losing that human element in life has impacted my own well-being until I was able to speak about it in virtual therapy. This serves as both a reminder of the many losses caused by COVID-19, but also as an anchor that keeps me connected and mentally sound.