Therapists go virtual to help the rising number of clients

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Doctors, nurses, grocery store employees and others have been hailed as essential-worker heroes over the last three months as they’ve been wading out into the COVID-19–infected world to work during the global pandemic that upended daily life this winter. But there is another profession that, while able to work from home, is just as essential: therapist.

“‘I just need to talk to someone,’ is something I hear more and more now,” Steve Margeotes, the executive director of Main St. Counseling in West Orange, said in a phone interview on June 26. “Some people are requiring more than one session a week.”

The counseling center, which has been in West Orange for 40 years, provides therapy for individuals, couples, families, senior citizens and veterans. When it became apparent that in-person appointments would soon become ill-advised, Margeotes and his staff figured out how to adjust to the digital sphere. They’ve been doing sessions with clients via Zoom and Doxy.me. It works but has not been without its challenges.

“When it became apparent that this would become a reality in New Jersey we started researching what to do,” Margeotes said. “It’s not perfect. Therapy was designed to be done in person. A lot of people have said, ‘I miss the room and the safety that brings.’”

Technology issues are one thing, but the bigger concern has been the lack of privacy. Clients who have been locked in their homes for months may have other family members or roommates around all the time, which eliminates the privacy therapy usually provides. Margeotes said some have been doing sessions in their cars, or trying to find other places to be alone amid a house full of people.

“It’s hard to talk about family dynamics with your family right there,” he said. “But I anticipate this will be the new reality for at least a few more months.”

Calls to the center have been rising, too. According to Margeotes, depression and anxiety have risen during the pandemic, brought on by the stress of working from home, homeschooling children and the loss of daily routines. Some people are quarantined on their own and have lost most social interaction, which can be isolating. Others have lost their jobs. Those who were already clients at Main St. are facing new challenges, and others are reaching out for the first time to seek help.

“It would be nice to exercise or talk to your family, because those things help,” Margeotes said. “But in between you’re alone with your thoughts, and there’s a lot of dead time now. When you’re alone it’s easy to indulge in things that aren’t good for you.”

The therapists on staff were able to adapt and adjust, but they’re not immune to the struggles their clients may be facing. Telehealth is rough on the providers as well.

“We’re continuing to have meetings and we try to stay in contact as we would have before,” Margeotes said. “I’m proud of them, because adjusting to this is harder than face-to-face therapy. But they’re people too, and they’ve suffered their own losses.”

No counselors have been laid off, and none will be. Main St. is actually hiring more this summer as the demand for therapy remains high. But they’re still quite far away from reopening the building on Marcella Avenue.

“We know staff prefers to be here, and we know clients prefer to be here,” Margeotes said. “When we open, we probably won’t have a waiting room and will ask them to wait in the car until two minutes before their session. What we want to do is not have anyone feel uneasy about coming in. For now, they have to be safe.”

Now that they know it’s possible to hold counseling sessions online, Margeotes said Main St. isn’t counting out a hybrid form of therapy where clients can have both in-person sessions and digital ones. It’s just another evolution in a long line of them.

“I think it’s indicative of what we’ve been doing for four decades,” he said. “When we started we didn’t have a budget and would be doing car washes and plant sales. You constantly have to adjust for whatever the challenge is. This is far more serious, but that’s what we’ve done. Our ability to plan and organize hasn’t changed.”

For more information, visit www.mainstcounseling.org or call 973-736-2041.

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