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Videoconferencing for Mental Health: Necessary Transition to the Next Level?

Updated: May 1, 2021

And why videoconferencing can be extremely useful these days

For many of us postal services and landline telephone conversations are losing their significance since new distance- and time-bridging visual communication technologies have been introduced and are successfully adopted. Among these advanced forms of communication videoconferencing (VC) is becoming increasingly popular tool for individual as well as group interaction2. Apparently, main reasons driving this growth are a wish to save time and money, a need for a constant communication among people from geographically dispersed locations, decreased prices of videoconferencing equipment, technological advances, easy use and set up of the system and reduced cost of usage1. To this list unfortunately, we should also add economic crisis, terrorists’ attacks, natural disasters1 as well as pandemics like Coronavirus, which just has hit us recently.

Notwithstanding its` rapid adoption, videoconferencing is not a brand-new invention. This technology for the first time was introduced in 1920 and initially it failed to achieve a broad usage. Only at the beginning of this century, when technologies used for VC remarkably improved, the number of VC users has considerably increased3. Now there is a variety of manufacturers offering different videoconferencing solutions (both hardware and software) for mobile and desktop videoconferencing, which are being applied4 in private, business as well as academic sectors5. For example, in private life VC is mainly used for social interaction with family and friends. Companies often employ it for board meetings, customer service and consultations, personnel learning, interviews, product announcements and telemedicine. In the academic field videoconferencing is used for educational purposes so people in geographically dispersed locations could receive training and attend courses without being physically present in the class5, 2. This solution is also started being utilized by mental health specialists like social workers or psychologists, as well as mental health advisors and coaches. In the next section I will have a look on how this emerging technology is changing our attitudes and common means of how services are being delivered by the mental health professionals.

Mental and emotional health support and VC

A person needing mental and emotional support in most cases will turn to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or a psychiatric nurse, which work in a private practice or a public healthcare institution. Until very recently (again I mean Coronavirus spread) the most common mean for interacting with those professionals was a live face-to-face conversation onsite and it was considered a “golden standard”. The advantage of this set up is a live conversation and real-time physical co-presence, however to a customer it comes at a price of an ad-hoc planning (including actual travel) and appointment booking. Perhaps those could be considered just as “technicalities” but there are also bigger barriers for people in need for support. First of all, availability of mental health professionals is still quite restricted by their working hours (Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 17:00). What is even more concerning, is that seeking for and receiving mental healthcare services in general is still strongly stigmatized (associated with disgrace or public disapproval), which even more increases the hurdle for a person to seek or engage with a qualified help6.

Photo source: Tom Pumford (Unsplash)

I see a big value of VC in improving support for mental and emotional health and it can contribute to the improvement in at least two different ways:

1) Videoconferencing is an extension of specialist`s capacity in time and distance to support those in need outside of regular office hours and/or far from the specialist`s location

2) Videoconferencing is an addition to the regular mental health professional`s practice where individuals can receive extra support between their visits to a mental health professional.

From this perspective, videoconferencing clearly demonstrates an advantage over the current “golden standard” (face to face meeting onsite) in terms of improving access to care, especially for people who live in remote areas or for different reasons are not able to travel. And of course, videoconferencing also can reduce of travelling expenses in relation to time and money for those who can travel. In addition to this, we should not forget that face to face interaction is the most natural and innate for human beings, therefore one of the key requirements to modern Information Communication Technologies is to make mediated communication to resemble a real human interaction.

Contrary to other mediums (email, phone call or message) videoconferencing very well supports nonverbal communication such as gestures, posture, facial expressions of an individual, which can be critical for a thorough psychological assessment and building of a mutual understanding. As videoconferencing provides facial information and nonverbal cues[1] of its` attendees, it strengthens the feeling of social presence during the session and allows for the multiple interpretations4. What is more, videoconferencing can be combined with other equipment for data collaboration. In this case various computer software applications or shared whiteboards7 are employed which enable more complex communication processes2. Data collaboration principles via VC are mostly used in the corporate world but could also offer some benefits in a work of mental health professionals, such as online diagnostics, testing, progress reporting or data reviews.

Scientific research shows that there are several disadvantages of VC which also should be noted. First, it is difficult to maintain an eye contact because of image resolution and the set-up of a monitor and camera7. During videoconference sessions technical problems such as various delays of signals, asynchrony and not always high video and audio quality can occur. As information communication technologies nowadays are so advanced, technical problems do not occur that often or to an extent that it is not possible to hold a VC session. Another shortcoming of VC is that due to the physical separation, side talks and touching between attendees are not possible. Attendees also cannot be sure what is seen and heard by others, and therefore sometimes attendees’ verbal and nonverbal behaviour considerably increases4. We should not forget that if a person is not so familiar with the VC technology it-self, some learning and practicing might be required to become at ease with it. The above-mentioned difficulties result in various communication via VC problems such as: misunderstandings, distractions, longer dialogs and confusing turn-taking that may cause a decreased efficiency, satisfaction and reduced quality of decisions2,8.

There is one more potential disadvantage which is being brought up by insights of the cognitive science which is called cognitive load. The argument here goes that VC in comparison to other communication media produces a higher cognitive load for its attendees and therefore they tend to rely more on heuristic instead of systematic processing, which results in biased impressions about the content and participants of the videoconference. While the topic is really interesting and exciting, I will try to bring it up in my next post - stay tuned.

Photo source: June O. (Unsplash)

To sum up, the goal of my comparison and detailed discussion of advantages and possible shortcomings of VC was to illustrate that this communication technology can be an attractive and easy-accessible solution for all different applications and especially for the mental and emotional support which is becoming more and more important now that we are facing anxiety, fears, stress and changes associated with the challenge of the Coronavirus. I am hopeful that mental health professionals will be more encouraged and enabled to support their clients via VC rather than frightened by the technology as with the current trends in the world it seems to be on its way to become a new “golden standard”. Anyhow, before adopting VC in practice mental health professionals should be well aware of its limitations, assess a potential impact to the quality of services and finally assure no additional discomfort to a client.

Key take-aways:

· While videoconferencing is not a recent invention, its` mass adoption has really started in conjunction with technological advances, user-needs dictated by modern lifestyles (communication across times and geographies) and unpredictable circumstances speeding up its adoption (natural disasters, economic crisis or a recent pandemics).

· Videoconferencing can be well utilized in the praxis of mental health professionals because it provides an opportunity overcome time (immediate or almost immediate availability of service) and distance (traveling limitations and geographical distance) restrictions and interaction with those who are in need for support.

· Videoconferencing might cause some additional communication problems: such as misunderstandings, distractions, longer dialogs and confusing turn-taking which may decrease efficiency, satisfaction and reduce quality of decisions2,8. Therefore VC application in the work of mental health professionals requires additional consideration in order to ensure good quality of service and sufficient support to the customers.

Works Cited:

1. Cochrane, N. (2010). Business booms for video conferencing specialist eVideo. CRN Magazine, 1-3.

2. Wegge J., B. T. (2007). Goal setting via videoconferencing. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 16, 169–194.

3. Barlow, J., Peter, P., & Barlow, L. (2002). Smart Videoconferencing: New Habits for Virtual Meetings. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

4. Wegge, J. (2006). Communication via Videoconference: Emotional and Cognitive Consequences of Affective Personality Dispositions, Seeing One's Own Picture, and Disturbing Events. Human–Computer Interaction, 21:3, 273-318.

5. Fullwood C., D.-S. G. (2006 ). Effect of gazing at the camera during a video link on recall. Appl Ergon, 167-75.

6. Ahmedani, B. K. (2011, November 1). Mental Health Stigma: Society, Individuals, and the Profession. Journal of social work values and ethics, 8(2), pp. 41–416.

7. Wainfan, L. & Davis, P. (2004). Challenges In Virtual Collaboration: Videoconferencing, Audioconferencing, And Computer-Mediated Communications.

8. Crede, M., & Sniezek, J. A. (2003). Group judgment processes and outcomes in video-conferencing versus face-toface groups. International Journal of human-computer studies, 59, 875-897.

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