Telemental health focus of social work alumna’s new online counseling practice

Melissa Douglass

Melissa Douglass, BSW 2012 and MSW 2014, opened Goal Driven Counseling, a fully online counseling practice serving teens and young adults going through transitions. Douglass gives us a look inside the home office that her clients see behind her on screen. She’s had the space specially soundproofed for privacy and confidentiality. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Melissa Douglass said she wanted to get back in front of clients, she hadn’t envisioned faces on computer screens for video conferencing therapy sessions.

But when she started brainstorming her new private practice, Goal Driven Counseling, Douglass saw an opportunity to differentiate herself and offer a service most other practices weren’t offering – telemental health care.

“Whenever anybody says counselor or therapist, you think about going to somebody’s office and lying on the couch in this Zen space,” said Douglass, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “I think that’s great mental correlation, but when you leave that office, you have to go back into your normal environment. Video conferencing helps you bring that Zen space to wherever you are.”

Clients find convenience and flexibility in seeking counseling via their smart phones and computers. They can speak with Douglass in the privacy of their homes or on the go in public, as long as they can ensure privacy of their conversation. Plug in their headphones, and no one has to know they are on a video call with their therapist.

The difference in space has also enabled Douglass to have more conversations on how clients can make their home more comfortable and a therapeutic space for themselves. She’s big on aroma therapies, deep breathing and addressing negative thought patterns.

Douglass opened Goal Driven Counseling in September 2017. In addition to offering online counseling, Douglass also gives public presentations as part of her “Taking the Wheel” workshop series.

Douglass specializes in counseling with teens and young adults experiencing challenging transitions. She says offering mental health care to these populations via technology seems only fair when so many other services are available online. But serving tech-savvy generations didn’t necessarily force her business into that realm.

“It’s not the only way to reach millennials,” Douglass said. “It’s more a matter of preference for individuals and not any more preferred or better than face-to-face counseling.”

In fact, she often gets contacted by clients seeking in-person counseling and refers them appropriately to such. But she says that video counseling helps increase access and reaches those people who might not ever walk through the doors of a counseling center due to shame, anxiety or lack of motivation from depression.

It also presents a broader geographical clientele base. Douglass, who is a licensed clinical social worker in Missouri, can counsel statewide. Her digital reach means she has clients in Columbia, Kansas City and Springfield in addition to those in St. Louis, where she’s based.

That geographical reach has helped Douglass meet another need she hadn’t anticipated.

“So many times I get called,” Douglass said, “and the first thing people say is: ‘I’ve been looking for a black female therapist.’”

They go on to tell her how the nearest female African American therapist may be 30 miles away, which doesn’t surprise Douglass. She personally has observed underrepresentation of people of color within the field.

Many women of color have found Douglass through an online directory on TherapyforBlackGirls.com.

“It has opened my eyes to a need that I knew was there but wasn’t a primary focus when I chose telemental health,” Douglass said. “This is a void I’m helping fill. I’m very aware and very grateful that I can serve in this way.”

Douglass uses Wecounsel, an online platform and telemental health client management system that allows her to video conference with clients online via a smart phone application or web address that is HIPAA compliant.

She works out of a home office that she’s had soundproofed to protect privacy and confidentiality. She also says that the convenience and flexibility of telemental health counseling goes both ways.

A wife with three children, Douglass can step out of her home office and be right with her family again. That wasn’t always the case.

Prior to devoting her efforts to Goal Driven Counseling full time, Douglass worked for St. Louis County government in a supervisory role that she had grown into from a case manager position. She had focused on leadership programming for high school students.

It was the practicum requirement as a social work student at UMSL that originally landed her there. While good at her job, Douglass spent more time away from her family and desired a more clinical setting.

“I really wanted to understand and gain experience in assessment of symptoms, medications, and the criteria on how to differentiate between diagnoses – things you find in a more clinical environment,” she said.

She started an “as-needed” position at CenterPointe Hospital, an in-patient psychiatric hospital in St. Charles, Missouri.

“When you talk about ramping up clinical experience, that was it,” said Douglass, who continued working for St. Louis County and laying the ground work for her own practice.

She managed family life, two jobs and planning her own business for almost a year before she finally saw the fruits of her labor and opened Goal Driven Counseling in September of 2017. By January of this year, she saw such promising success that she took the leap and made Goal Driven Counseling her full-time job, leaving St. Louis County.

The name for her practice comes from her observation of all the goals people set for their education, careers, social life and family life.

“We’re very comfortable with placing goals around all those things,” she said, “but I also want to normalize mental health goals as well.”

Douglass grew up on the South Side of Chicago. A high-performing student, she says no one might have guessed how much she actually struggled with not having her father around and having a mother addicted to drugs throughout her childhood – something she wouldn’t realize affected her until early adulthood. Douglass was taken in and raised by a family that wasn’t her own but loved and supported her as such.

“I didn’t even realize how much I was not addressing my own things as I was pushing through,” Douglass said. “Because I performed well in school, was into dance and cheerleading, everybody always thought I was OK, and I thought I was being strong.”

She wants to be sure teens and young adults know that they have support and options, so they don’t have to go it alone.

“Mental health is part of our overall health and shouldn’t be ignored,” said Douglass, who is still taking clients.

And if it helps, they don’t even have to walk into a counseling center. Douglass is a video call away.

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