A growing tribe of therapy-seekers now employ video calls over Skype, and chats over Gmail as a means to keep in touch with their psychotherapist. But, when the webcam does away with eye contact, how does the therapist plumb the depths of a client's mind? Anjana Vaswani sits in for a long-distance therapy demo session to find out
Two-and-a-half years ago, 28 year-old Utkarsh Arora (name changed) finally agreed to an arranged marriage. What he never told his wife was that he had been seeking therapy for a year before the wedding, to deal with his family's resistance towards a girl whom he was in a relationship with since college. After she broke up the relationship with him, his sessions became more important to him.
Behavioural therapist Nivedita Rawal takes us through a demo Skype session at her office. Pic/ Shadab Khan
"After marriage, when my wife and I relocated to Jamshedpur, I was worried, because I still needed to talk to my therapist at times, and I didn't want to visit a new one in a new city," says Arora.
Now, twice a week for an hour during his lunch break, Arora visits an Internet caf �, to chat with his Mumbai-based therapist over Skype.
"It's not the most comfortable situation," admits Arora. "But I feel the sessions are helping and that I may even be able to put that whole saga behind me soon."
Arora is part of a growing tribe of urban Internet users, who are holding sessions with their psychotherapists over video and the Internet. This phenomenon is fuelled in large parts by clients who are unwilling to change therapists while moving cities, and those who simply know that their therapist is a Skype call away while they are travelling.
Borivli-based psychologist Dr Sanjoy Mukerji says the number of patients seeking Internet therapy has shot up dramatically over the last year, during which time, he claims, he has received over 500 requests for Internet counselling.
Like Mukerji, psychotherapists around the country vouch for an increase in demand for video therapy sessions.
"When I first offered online therapy, seven or eight years ago, I couldn't get a single client to try it out," admits Mukerji, sharing that, at that time, online sessions were limited to live-chats. Video conferencing only caught on much later. Now, numerous Indian and international websites offer quick-therapy sessions online. These typically involve sending details to the therapist and making a payment beforehand.
Pune-based psychotherapist Rujuta Vinod too, has her calendar bursting with e-therapy appointments on websites like www.askyourdronline.com and www.sweekruti.org, through which she offers therapy to Indians, NRIs, and foreign nationals mainly from the US, UK, Australia and Canada. It's the convenience factor, she says, that draws clientele to seek her expertise online. "Clients choose between email and a chat session," says Vinod. Most of Vinod's clients that opt for online therapy, reside outside Pune. 'Meeting' her online saves them a lot of time and spares them the commute.
Early converts "When video-conferencing became popular a few years ago, it added a whole new dimension to online therapy," adds Mukerji, telling us how it allowed him to develop a closer rapport with clients. Initially, he had to teach patients the basics, and that wasn't easy -- either for him, or his clients.
"Clients needed to be taught everything, right from how to download the software to how to log in. It was a very cumbersome process, besides which, I found, many patients were extremely intimidated by the idea of using technology."
For instance, 32-year-old homemaker Bindiya Sethi (name changed) wasn't sure if her typed messages were private or could be viewed by others, when she first started using the net. The Versova resident has been seeking relationship therapy for the last six years, and has spoken with her therapist online on two occasions.
"I have a wheelchair-bound patient in Germany, who requires intermittent sessions to help him cope with the trauma of everyday life," shares behavioural and psychological therapist Nivedita Rawal, explaining how the Internet has been a boon in some cases. "It's important to be able to offer therapy sessions to some patients who really need it, even when they're required to travel or if I'm away on a trip. There shouldn't be a break in that chain."
That's also why Dr Vinaya Prabha initiated Skype sessions earlier this year. "I moved from Bengaluru to New Delhi in May, and decided to offer online therapy so that I could stay connected to my clients in Bengaluru," shares the psychologist and consultant psychotherapist. "Most of my clients have access to the Internet, so I can continue with the sessions from wherever I am, over Skype," she says.
The naysayers Though Internet sessions have tremendous utility for Rawal, who has patients around the world, it's not her preferred mode of offering therapy. Rawal, who set up the Ultra Health Holistic Clinic in Mumbai and Singapore in 1998 and 2007 respectively, says, "A physical meeting between therapist and patient is better."
Rawal is clear that she would never offer a video chat therapy session to a new client, as she finds non-verbal communication -- signs, gestures, the look on a patient's face -- essential to establishing the relationship between therapist and client.
Her therapy room has a comfortable cream couch, and looks like a cozy lounge. An antique record-player stares out from a shelf under voile-draped windows and a large gold Buddha adorns one wall, flanked by a wood and glass cabinet stocked with curios and wine glasses. Beside the small electronic gadgets on top of the centre table, lies a diary of press clippings. This is the sort of room clients would open up and talk in, built as it is with care.
"A video-chat creates distance," says Rawal, as she prepares to demonstrate a mock Skype session, for our benefit. "The idea of interacting with a client in my office, which has a home-like environment, is to get them to be comfortable and offer them a safe, secure and private space where they may speak freely and shed their inhibitions."
This, she says, is almost impossible to achieve over the Internet when someone is squeezing in a chat during their office lunch hour.
"Imagine a homemaker who's anxious to pour her heart out about very private problems, trying to discuss these with her therapist over the net," says Rawal. "Will she be able to speak freely from her home, with an eye constantly on the door, hoping her in-laws don't walk in while she's in the middle of her session? Such a stressful session would neither benefit her nor allow the therapist to start