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Published March 02, 2012, 11:30 PM

Get help online: New service allows counseling from home computer

FARGO – There’s a new counseling option for people who might not be able to make it in for a face-to-face appointment with a counselor.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO – There’s a new counseling option for people who might not be able to make it in for a face-to-face appointment with a counselor.

The Village Family Service Center is offering online mental health services or “telemental health” as it’s sometimes called.

Telemental health has been around for a while, especially in the military as a way to reach out to veterans suffering with post traumatic stress syndrome, said Rachel Blumhardt, who started offering online counseling through The Village in August.

Blumhardt uses video conferencing to connect with clients. She said telemental health is a good way to provide counseling services in rural areas where there aren’t often local options.

“You don’t need to worry about snowstorms. You don’t need to worry about floods,” Blumhardt said.

Online counseling can also be a cheaper option for people who would otherwise have to travel for counseling services, said Chuck Summers, The Village Family Service Center Fargo Counseling Services clinical manager.

“Research is demonstrating that, for many issues, web-based counseling can be as effective as face-to-face counseling,” he said.

Blumhardt has also been able to use it to provide marital counseling when one spouse is out of the area or for truck drivers who are on the road a lot, she said.

Fewer than one-quarter of the 45 million American adults with a mental illness receive treatment according to a 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey.

Part of the reason for that is a perceived stigma associated with seeing a counselor. Telemental health can help with that, too, Blumhardt said.

“It really reduces that stigma people sometimes feel coming in and seeking help with mental health services,” she said. “It’s very safe, very comfortable, and the technology is fairly easy to use.”

While there are a lot of benefits to online counseling, it’s not always a good fit, Summers said.

“Web-based counseling is not likely to be a desirable option in situations involving clinically complex diagnoses or in cases where there is concern about the risk of self-harm or suicide,” he said.

When Blumhardt was approached about the opportunity to provide online counseling services, she readily agreed.

“I enjoy technology, and I enjoy being able to offer service to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them,” she said. “I think it’s going to be popular among the younger generation because they’re more comfortable with technology.”

Blumhardt provides the service using secure, encrypted hardware and software to protect patient confidentiality.

Those who want to use online counseling services need a secure internet connection, video conferencing software and a web camera, Blumhardt said.

Summers also said people looking for web-based counseling should check through a state regulatory board that their counselor is fully licensed as a mental health services provider.