By Carla Bumstead
— Lorna Poyer, LMSW, ACSW, has been working as a mental health therapist in Charlotte for over 15 years. She has always seen her clients face-to-face, up close and personal. But with the arrival of COVID-19 (coronavirus), she has had to go outside her comfort zone and learn something new. To her surprise, it’s been great.
“Back in the first part of March, when they came out with the six-foot distancing rule, I was worried,” Poyer said. “So I figured I’d just take a few weeks off.”
But after talking with several colleagues who were making the switch to using video conferencing technology to meet with clients, she started to rethink her plan.
“I am not at all technical, and I thought ‘oh I just can’t make that leap’ (to video),” Poyer said. “But I called Ben Maldonado, who is just great, and we worked together on setting it up.
“Monday, March 16 was the last time I saw clients face-to-face. The switch to video has pretty much gone without a hitch, and I am surprised by how much I like it.”
Ben Maldonado owns Alpha Video & Computer Services in Charlotte. He said he has seen an increase in calls over the past few weeks from people needing help in setting themselves up to be able to work remotely.
“People do understand what the capabilities are these days,” Maldonado said. “But it is important for them to also make sure they have their system set up properly — in terms of virus protection, a firewall for security and things like that.”
Poyer’s practice is called Peaceful Balance Counseling and is located in an office on Van Sickle Drive in Charlotte. But beginning March 17, her clients are now meeting with her via video chat. She explained she uses a HIPAA-compliant app, such as the business version of Zoom. She goes into her office to talk but reaches each patient at home, in the room of their choosing. She said the change has allowed clients to feel more comfortable and allows her a chance to actually “see” aspects of their lives she could only imagine before.
“I thought we would lose the personalness of a face-to-face meeting, but it’s actually better in some ways,” Poyer said. “Sitting in an office, a doctor’s office or whatever, can make you a little anxious.
“But it is totally different when I am on Zoom and they are in their own place, where they are comfortable. I am meeting their pets, their babies and they can show me the painting they’ve done or whatever they’ve been working on. For example, if I am talking to a teen, they can say ‘here is my room,’ and I can see the things that are important to them.”
Poyer said the overall experience has felt very comfortable for her and has seemed to do the same for her patients.
“It feels like I am ‘looking’ at them more than when they are sitting in front of me; there is actually more eye-to-eye contact. There is more sharing, and it feels like I am truly ‘seeing’ them. I really like it.”
In fact, Poyer likes the new way of doing things so much she is thinking of continuing to hold many of her sessions exactly as she is doing now, via video.
“I may just stick with it. The sessions seem to go by faster, and there is no worry about sanitizing anything. I think it offers a lot of benefits to both me and my clients. I can clearly see they are more comfortable.”
COVID coping advice
Poyer said the current COVID-19 situation has resulted in worry and stress for virtually everyone. But people who already suffer with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are especially vulnerable.
“This is a time of great uncertainty,” she said. “Uncertainty, and not knowing what to expect in the future, can be extremely stressful.
“People need to feel they are in control, and in this situation many of us have lost that control. It can be very upsetting, especially for those suffering from anxiety and depression.”
She said one of the most important things people can do is set a personal schedule.
“Get into some kind of schedule, change out of your clothes and don’t just have daytime and nighttime pajamas. You don’t have to be super strict with your schedule, but way too many people are just sleeping away this time because they are depressed about it.”
She suggests people stop to think what sorts of things they have always wanted to do but have “never had the time.” This could include such things as crocheting, painting, wood-working or learning to cook something special.
For example, Poyer likes to read and has joined an online book club hosted by a favorite author.
“It’s a time to be creative — art, music or whatever someone has an interest in. If you can’t draw, then get online and see what is out there in terms of art. Explore.”
Numerous musicians have taken to the internet and are offering a wide variety of streaming entertainment. For those who do not have reliable internet access, there are still tried and tested ways of passing time — including reading, crafting or cooking.
Help is available
Poyer stresses that mental health assistance is still available, regardless of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“People need to know they do not need to just sit there and suffer,” Poyer said. “Every counselor I know of has made the switch to video conferencing; They are not taking time off.”
Insurance companies are paying for video sessions the same as they would pay for in person sessions. It is still mental health therapy and is still “face-to-face.”
Those who find themselves struggling are encouraged to call their insurance companies for help in locating a therapist. Many businesses also offer employee mental health assistance programs. There are also several online resources available, including a “mindfulness” program, available at headspace.com/mi, called “Stay Home, Stay MIndful.” The suicide prevention hotline is 800-273-8255, where help is available 24/7. More information is available online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Poyer is taking new clients, and she can be reached at 517-543-1150. Her Peaceful Balance Counseling office is located at 64 Van Sickle Dr., Suite B in Charlotte. The office is not currently open to the public, but she is seeing clients via video chat.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has launched a statewide “warmline” for Michiganders living with persistent mental health conditions. The warmline will connect individuals with certified peer support specialists who have lived experiences of behavioral health issues, trauma or personal crises, and are trained to support and empower the callers.
The warmline is operating seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. at 888-PEER-753 (888-733-7753). It is intended to serve individuals living with persistent mental health challenges including anxiety, depression and trauma. More information on mental health services available during the COVID-19 crisis is available at michigan.gov/coronavirus.