Taking Recovery Home: How to Get the Most Out of Virtual Mental Health Care

By Courtney Weider

At Eating Recovery and Pathlight At Home, virtual IOP is designed to fit easily into everyday life. Learn from experts about how to take recovery home.

From setting up your physical space to preparing for technology issues, there are a few simple steps you can take today to ensure you have a smooth transition when starting virtual mental health care. These preparations can help you feel more connected to your therapist or group during sessions, which is an important component of your healing journey.

What do we know about virtual care? Eating Recovery and Pathlight At Home, our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for eating disorders and mood and anxiety disorders, brings experienced, compassionate clinicians directly to you. Covered by most major commercial insurance plans, we have treated more than 7,000 patients virtually since 2016.

Whether you are starting virtual sessions with your outpatient therapist or trying to understand how virtual IOP will fit into your everyday life, hear from our experts about how to take recovery home.

  1. Give yourself permission to ask questions. “It’s normal for someone to have an initial period in virtual therapy where it feels a little awkward and they worry about whether they’re going to feel connected,” says Deborah Michel, PhD, CEDS-S, FAED (she/her/hers), ERC’s National Clinical Director of Virtual Care. This is common and can be worked through as long as you are open about what you are experiencing. “Your therapist can help with that, so don’t hesitate to tell your therapist how you’re feeling.”
  2. Create a comfortable space for your sessions. “Therapists carefully curate the comfort of their offices, and patients should do the same for their virtual sessions,” Dr. Michel advises. “Make a cozy area where you can sit up comfortably with a plush blanket, pen, paper, water and tissues nearby.” By preparing this safe space in your home with everything you might need, you can be fully present for your session.
  3. Try to stick to the same space. Don’t assume that because a session is virtual you can do it wherever you happen to be, like a friend’s house or a car. “Having an established location ensures you’re in the right mindset for the session,” says Anne Maguire, LCSW, CEDS (she/her/hers), ERC’s Clinical Manager of Virtual Services. It is also important that you have enough privacy to feel safe participating and sharing throughout the session.
  4. Make yourself easy to see. “Body language and expressions are part of communication, and your therapist needs to see them,” Dr. Michel says. “If the light source, such as a window, is behind you, your face will be in a shadow.” This goes both ways. If you are unable to see your therapist’s face or body language and this is impacting your sessions, you can ask them to move or change their lighting so that you feel more connected.
  5. Eliminate distractions. “Do whatever you need to do to be fully present,” Maguire says. Turn off the self-view camera on the meeting software if that’s helpful to you. View the session on full screen on your computer desktop. Put your phone away and mute notifications. Go to the bathroom ahead of time. Make prior arrangements for child care. Note: This might be easier said than done, so be sure to give yourself grace if you find yourself distracted or fielding interruptions. Each time that happens, you can learn from it and try again the next day.
  6. If you’re scrolling, know that it will show. “Therapy can be emotionally provoking, and it’s natural for us to want to distract ourselves by opening another screen and looking through it,” Dr. Michel says. “When I see a client doing that, I’ll ask them what they’re doing. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discuss what led to this avoidant behavior and how to work through it.”
  7. Have a plan B for technology.  "The nature of technology is that glitches can happen,” Dr. Michel says. “You and your therapist should make a plan for switching to a phone call during a session if need be.” Even when we are familiar with the program or platform we are using, sometimes our internet connection can cut out or it turns out our laptop wasn’t plugged into a power source. Openly setting up this backup plan will eliminate some of the stress when that happens.

If you’re not sure whether virtual care is right for you, listen to Mackenzie Carmichael’s (she/her/hers) story here. Mackenzie, an Eating Recovery At Home alumnus, shares how her treatment team recommended pivoting to virtual IOP at the onset of the pandemic, and how she was able to meaningfully connect with her group and care team from the comfort and convenience of her home.

“There was a different element of connection that we all had because it was virtual. And with that element, I kind of think that we almost were even closer because we did get the opportunity to truly just be welcomed into one another's home in such a unique situation.” -- Mackenzie Carmichael, Eating Recovery At Home alumnus

Virtual options are increasing access to treatment for those who live in rural areas without in-person mental health care nearby, or for anyone who can’t easily travel or commute for treatment.

“I think one of the biggest benefits of virtual treatment is it's just more accessible. We even have a patient now who lives in a van and travels. And so, I think, what a great representation of how accessible this service is. Another benefit is you get to do it in the comfort of your own home. So, you really get to practice the things that you're being taught and implement them at home.” -- Kaila Peak-Rishel, LCSW, LMFT, CEDS-S, Clinical Director of Virtual Child and Adolescent Services at Eating Recovery At Home

As Peak-Rishel explains, through virtual programming, you build resilience and start practicing the skills you are learning in real time as you navigate everyday stressors. 

Whether you are a college student, a working professional, a busy parent or not able to easily travel for in-person mental health care, virtual IOP is an option that seamlessly fits into your everyday life. Take recovery home today.

Written by

Courtney Weider

Courtney Weider is the content manager and writer at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. This role combines her passion for both storytelling and mental health advocacy to…

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