When I began my training to work online we used Microsoft Messenger. It was just called MSN or messenger but at that time was seen to be simple to use and there was a flexibility which made it useful for online counselling. It was free and it seemed most clients had it already installed on their computers.
I had learned carrying out counselling via text replicates the Freud Jung exchanges of yesteryear. I had no idea then of the history. What I did know was I could change my font, my avatar and I could express sadness, anger and joy all with a change of colour. My roleplays were conducted in silence with only utterances under my breath as I mistyped or searched for the words which really expressed as I felt as a client. My counsellor roleplay studiously slow and measured.
Was it secure? I don’t know.
When I began my diploma in online counselling I started looking for real clients. Until the day it began I didn’t practice online, nor had most of my peers in the group. We were waiting until we were competent to launch out into the world.
As students we tried different platforms. Each had positives and negatives. Coloured font seemed to be no longer on offer but it was useful to see someone else typing. We had learned how to make smiley faces and also understand some useful internet jargon. I was excited to begin but oh so nervous.
My contract had been changed and updated. I added pictures, removed them and added them again. I had a video call with a client arranged and it couldn’t come quick enough. My insurance company had stipulated I had to see my client face to face first which allowed me to explain all my security info, get my contract signed and so much extra.
I don’t think they really took my information on board. They didn’t pay for counselling, and I wasn’t being paid for the session – we just wanted it to go ahead.
The day and time arrived and I connected. That sick feeling in my stomach threatened to rise up into my mouth but how bad could it be?
So bad. My client was not alone. They had no secrets from their family and saw no reason to be in a private space. I can recall the blood draining out of my face as I saw the other family member waving excitedly. They were so delighted to be part of this new way of counselling. I honestly don’t recall ending the session, but I did. My memory has drawn a veil over my first video call session – but not all of it.
As a psychosexual therapist who works online I am perhaps doubly mindful of privacy. I receive emails from joandtimhotmail.com (example only, don’t email it) as the couple have no secrets. Webcam identities are shared. Why would they not be when they have been previously used to keep in touch with elderly parents or students abroad? MumandDad, or StevieandJune are common. This means that when contacting Dad, for example, Mum also gets the call and picks up too.
Since the smiling relative in my first session I am super clear about privacy for therapy. I search the background and listen really carefully. If I can hear the dishes being put away, the helpful hand in the kitchen can hear me. If I can see the baby sleeping in the cot, it’s not a great place to be exploring their parents sexual history.
If there is a phone hidden in the room recording every word of our session there is nothing I can do.
And it happens.
Online Training for Counsellors don’t get into discussions about which is the safest programme to use for video counselling as we believe security is much more than the app you use. Our clients have autonomy to decide which is safest and easiest for them to use. The biggest risk to client confidentiality comes from inside their own home where they may be listened to through the door, emails accessed through known passwords or recorded on the phone.
I often point out the face to face counselling is not carried out in the middle of a field to ensure no-one overhears. Many preventative measures are put in place to ensure a counselling room is secure and safe within an organisations. Unfortunately that also means shared waiting rooms and often fire registers to sign.
As a practitioner I concentrate on client safety and what is reasonable for them to consider. If I should be counselling someone very high profile I expect they will have their own preferred systems to use. As a counsellor I think I take reasonable care with my clients, as I’m sure you do too.
I would love to tell a client their digital information was 100% secure but that would be a lie. These 14 breaches begin with Adobe and include Canva and Equifax. I’m pretty sure they thought their security was watertight also.
If I do all I can to ensure privacy and confidentiality and encourage my clients to do the same it feels like there is little else we can do – apart from have counselling in a field.