Sioux Trails takes telemental counseling to the next level

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Sioux Trail’s Mental Health Center’s newest outpatient therapist Elizabeth Quinby sits in the telemental health room where clients or therapists will be able to connect virtually for teleconferencing.

NEW ULM — A new service at a local mental health clinic means clients will be able to lie on their own couch during sessions instead of their therapist’s.

Sioux Trails Mental Health Clinic (STMHC) is expanding its telemental health program to allow therapy clients to communicate with their therapists via video-chat.

“It is using two-way, real-time interactive communication,” Executive Director Catherine Job said. “Basically it is putting someone in front of a TV and they see their psychiatrist via the TV as opposed to being in the same room as them.”

Sioux Trails previously offered psychiatric treatment via telemental health, though that could not be done from home.

For psychiatric treatment, clients still had to come to a clinic and see a nurse for prescription drugs. They then could use a specially designed room to speak with their psychologists.

Psychiatry clients will still have to come into the clinic for their treatments due to those constraints, but now therapy clients will be able to enjoy a few different advantages that the technology offers, Job said.

“We are excited about it because we are in a rural area,” Job said. “It is tough for some people to get into our clinics. I mean if you live in Springfield this is not a five minute drive for an appointment.”

Whether it is due to lack of transportation or bad weather, clients can still make their appointments.

The program can also help clients who simply are not close enough to the clinic for regular appointments to be viable.

“We see this as a great opportunity for college students,” Job said. “You can potentially get therapy from your dorm room when maybe your roommate is in class.”

Job also pointed out that while a lot of work has been done to quash the stigma against mental health treatment, it still exists to some extent.

Telemental health programs mean someone who is uncomfortable going into the clinic could get treatment from their own home, possibly from a therapist anywhere in the state.

That being said, the first two appointments will have to be in-person to determine eligibility. For the time being, no one under 15-years-old will be eligible.

“Eventually we may even be able to use it in the schools, because we also have therapists in many of the local schools,” Job said. “But we do not want to try it on the younger kids, we want to try it on our mature adolescents and our adults because we have never done this before.”

Clients who are suicidal or who could be a danger to themselves or others also will not be eligible.

“There are just certain behaviors and clinical issues that we have to address before we can say it is safe for them to have therapy in their home because therapy is tough and you get down to some pretty serious issues and you want to make sure that the client is in a safe place,” Job said.

There are also a few requirements on the home end. The most straight forward is the client needs a private device like a computer or even a smartphone that can access the internet and is capable of video chat.

A safe, quite space where the client feels comfortable speaking freely is also required. Finally, STMHC needs a safety plan in place, complete with an emergency contact.

“If we are in session with someone and they become suicidal or agitated and we are afraid for their safety then we need to know who to call,” Job said.

Telemental health may not be for everybody. Job encourages clients already participating in therapy to stick to in person sessions.

Currently telemental health will stick to the same schedule as the clinics, Mondays 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Starting next year, Job hopes to expand the program to more evening hours so shift workers can access it without missing work.

Even though video chatting technologies like Skype or Facetime have been around for a little while now, Job suspects STMHC is the first in the area to expand telemental health to therapy.

The main limiting factor has been insurance, namely the lack of companies covering telemental health.

“Just in the last year or so, so many more insurance companies have started covering this service and two or three years ago we could not do this because the insurance would not pay,” Job said.

She suggests anyone interested in telemental health contacts their insurance first to see if it is covered.

If it is, a client can simply call Sioux Trails at (507) 354-3181 and say they would like to try telemental health.