16 February 2011

Stepping up to the challenge of online counselling

By Mohamad Ehwan

Life would probably be problem-free in a perfect world. Unfortunately there is no such thing since problems, and the stress that usually comes with it, is part and parcel of life. Fortunately, oftentimes talking to a close friend or loved ones about what disturbs us helps. Don’t have anyone close to talk to or too shy to talk about your problem? Not to worry, there’s always online counselling.

Online counselling is the preferred choice by those who need brief and instant professional help. In online counselling the client (or patient) consults the counsellor via email on the issue that the former needs help with. There is no face-to-face contact and the client may choose to remain anonymous throughout the session. The client composes his or her thoughts, review the text, and revise it if so desired, before sending it. The counsellor responds by the same manner.

Online counselling is especially appealing for those who may be embarrassed to speak to someone in person or fearful of the repercussions that may follow as a result of revealing closely guarded personal details. For instance, in Malaysia a gay client may find it intimidating to openly express his sexual orientation because of the stigma that society attaches to homosexuality.

Online counselling therefore gives the client the option to set the limit on how much personal information he or she wants to share.

The upside in having to write about the problem to the counsellor is itself therapeutic. Besides “unloading” the stress, by talking about the problem the client may gain a new perspective to the situation and therefore is able to deal with it.

While it is possible to seek help online in some cases, it is not the panacea for all problems. Domestic violence or active suicidal ideation, for instance, may require immediate action to be taken. In situations such as these, the delay in email exchanges between the counsellor and client in online counselling is a disadvantage.

But where face-to-face counselling service is not available, this is where online counselling is the alternative. With the government seriously looking into developing technological skills among Malaysians and providing Internet access in the rural areas of Sarawak, online counselling will be available to a broader spectrum of the community.

Needless to say, it is convenient because it can be accessed from any where and at any time as long as the Internet is up and running. This benefits those who may be ill, physically disabled or are more comfortable in their own home environment. Besides its cost-effectiveness, there is no need to keep appointments.

It must be noted that when the computer screen separates people, non-verbal communication is missing. This is a challenge for online counsellors to address the client’s problem accurately. The possibility of misinterpreting the problem is very real. And, in trying to help a client the counsellor is not physically present to offer emotional support, give hope and motivate the client. These are important elements when counselling.

Counsellors therefore must be aware of the limitations of the service they provide. ,

On the other hand, it helps if the client possesses the ability to express himself or herself accurately, and has the ability to troubleshoot if any technical problems should they arise with their computers.

Although still in its infancy in Malaysia, online counselling has shown that it has the potential to take the path of telephone counselling. Years ago, the idea of counselling over the telephone was mooted by Malaysian counsellors. Today, a group of volunteers who call themselves “Befrienders” provide a listening ear to thousands of people in only a phone call away.

In the meantime, online counselling is provided mostly by Malaysian institutions of higher learning to support their students in issues such as career decision-making, coping with home sickness, relationship difficulties, or academic difficulties.

Swinburne Sarawak will soon offer an online counselling service for its students, following in the footsteps of its home campus in Melbourne, Australia.

While it may take some time before it is fully established and integrated, the forecast for growth looks promising. As internet technology improves it is likely to evolve too. Imagine sharing personal issues online in a three-dimensional world using Virtual Reality Technology.

Mohamad Ehwan is a counsellor with the Student Operations Unit, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at mehwan@swinburne.edu.my