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It’s time to rethink the norms and face the new realities

ACTO patron Anne Stokes and champion of online therapy is challenging our profession to think differently

Over the years many of you will have heard of, listened to presentations at conferences, read books or articles by or indeed spoken to Anne Stokes. Anne is a passionate advocate of online counselling and psychotherapy and a practitioner of online work since the late 1990’s. Earlier this year, we were delighted when Anne accepted our invitation to become a patron of ACTO in recognition of her service to the profession.

Last month, you may have read about our plans to refresh our organisation for the challenges which lay ahead, as the online community grows to accommodate the environment, we now work in.

In July, I therefore invited Anne to give a presentation to the ACTO Board. Anne’s experience in the field of online psychotherapy and counselling is immense. Her book Online Supervision (Psychotherapy 2.0) is undoubtedly a must-read text for all online practitioners.  I wanted to give Anne the opportunity of challenging our organisation to embrace the new opportunities and help us to overcome the hurdles presented following the global pandemic. Since March, we have experienced significant membership growth in ACTO and of course thousands of psychotherapists and counsellors have migrated from face-to-face sessions to meeting with clients online.

I thought I would share one of the key points that Anne made: –

“The COVID-19 pandemic feels like it is a real watershed moment for the online counselling and therapy profession, turning our world upside down.

“In recent years, the number of therapists practising online has increased significantly. However, since March these numbers have grown exponentially. Many practitioners are now working online – because they have to. We need to respond to that, bringing people into our online community.

“For example, how are we going to ensure a consistently high quality of service to clients as those offering counselling and therapy online increases substantially? We must reach out to training providers and encourage people who may do things differently, whilst maintaining our ethical standards and values.”

Many of us have been working online for a period of time. Sometimes – given our enthusiasm and passion for online working – it can be difficult to understand the steep learning curve and issues facing other therapists who are new to this form of working. Our response must be inclusive and positive: supporting practitioners and those in the field of training, with the key objective of raising standards and ensuring the quality of our work.  

Anne’s contribution is timely. We have recently set ourselves new goals and aspirations to raise standards and encourage discussion and debate, as we welcome more members into our online community. Anne is encouraging us to do more – and to rethink how we do it.

Inspiring words. And words which we will translate into action.

Thank you, Anne.

Adrian M Rhodes

Chair, ACTO

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Anne Stokes on how she became an online counsellor

Our new patron Anne Stokes was one of the first to provide online counselling training in the UK. We asked her to share with us how she became an online counsellor.

How were you introduced to online counselling?

Anne Stokes

Just over 20 years ago, a good friend of mine, who I had trained with as a counsellor in the mid-80s, talked to several of us about a project she was currently involved with. A group of counsellors had got together and were looking at the possibilities of using the internet to work with clients. They wanted to set up a pilot scheme in which they would each work with a client and then talk together about what had happened – what worked and what didn’t.

They were therefore in need of ‘clients’. I volunteered to be a client, obviously not for my friend, but for one of the other members of the group who I didn’t know. In those days, the idea was to counsel through the medium of email exchanges. I think that because no one was quite sure how that would go, they were looking to use counsellors as clients because most of us would have supervisors and probably our own therapists to support us if things went badly wrong.

My counsellor sent me a contract and we began to work together, exchanging emails roughly once a week. I used a real issue as I have never been a big fan of role-plays as I think that it is nigh on impossible to truly pretend to have a problem which is made up, without a bit of one’s self creeping in unbidden and probably out of awareness. This has the potential to turn the whole thing into a disaster!

We exchanged a number of emails – I can’t actually remember how many now – and included various creative ways of working. I seem to recall the use of images, metaphors, drawings and a poem.

After we had ended, I gave my counsellor feedback on how I had found the experience. Though I was not involved with this part, I know that the group then looked at their combined learning and from there, what would be necessary to train counsellors to work online.

 

Did you like the idea straight away?

No, I most certainly did not! In those days I was a total luddite and thought the whole idea was completely bonkers. How on earth could a relationship be formed online, without ever meeting the other person? If that was so, then therapy couldn’t possibly be successful since the relationship is fundamental to the process. Basically, I volunteered to prove that this thing would not work.

When my colleagues (and some of my counselling students) at the University of Bristol knew that I was going to be part of this pilot, they fell about laughing as I was well known for having as little to do with technology as possible.

How I had to eat my words L . Not only did I form a sound and trusting relationship with my counsellor, but I discovered that she was well able to convey the core conditions throughout our email exchanges. I chose to concentrate on an issue which had been around for years and which I had looked at on and off within my face-to-face therapy without anything much changing.

Perhaps it was ‘good timing’ in my life, perhaps it was to do with the skill of my counsellor, perhaps it was because my expectations were so low, whatever…… it unblocked the issue and it was possible to make changes in my life and in a particular relationship, as well as gaining insight into to the underlying blocks. I could no longer say rather sniffily that e-counselling wouldn’t ever work and that it was a ridiculous notion.

The immediate consequence was that I decided that I would have to train as an online counsellor as the pilot group had then set up a training scheme. You can see what a leap I made – total sceptic to total convert in a few months. What a revolution and what an effect it had on my subsequent years as a therapist, trainer, supervisor and writer.

Along the way, I have been able to enjoy interactions and relationships with colleagues who I have met online. With a few people, these have turned into friendships sustained both online and face to face.

One bizarre occurrence was meeting someone face-to-face after a couple of years training together and then developing our close friendship online. We almost didn’t know how to conduct ourselves in person so to speak, until she asked why we were so stilted with each other when we could talk so easily online. As so often happens, this naming of what was happening broke the issue and we laughed at ourselves. We still know each other 18 years later.