'Walk-and-Talk' therapy popular option in W.Va. amid virus

By SCOTT GILLESPIE, Times West Virginian undefined

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — According to the Mayo Clinic, a brisk walk helps maintain a healthy weight, manages conditions from high blood pressure to diabetes, strengthens bones and muscles, and improves one’s physical coordination.

For the patients and counselors at Appalachian Life Enrichment Counseling Center, though, a walk through the streets of Fairmont or a nearby park is great for mental health, too.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing regulations, indoor visits to Appalachian Life’s new Fairmont offices ceased before they ever began. Their suites at 207 Fairmont Ave. were refurbished in January and February this year and a ribbon-cutting was planned for March.

Then the pandemic struck and in-person visits became verboten. Then the center’s grand opening celebration was postponed indefinitely.

While the Appalachian Life team employs a great deal of teletherapy for its many patients — last month, the center’s nine clinicians conducted more than 600 therapy sessions by videoconference — an old-school approach to therapy has emerged from the coronavirus challenge, one that has proven highly-effective.

They call it “Walk-and-Talk Therapy” and it’s just what it sounds like.

“It is exactly what it says. We meet our clients here outside the center or sometime we’ll meet them at a park. And we’ll literally walk all over town and talk it out,” said Jude Black, owner and president of Appalachian Life Enrichment Counseling Center.

“In a Walk-and-Talk, the patient lets their guard down because it seems like a normal relationship with someone. You know, you really don’t take walks with strangers. You just don’t do that,” Black said. “But with this form of therapy, it facilitates good, solid relationships. You’re out doing something active and all of those feel-good chemicals in your brain are being released as you’re walking.”

With Walk-and-Talk Therapy, the streets and parks of Fairmont have replaced the outmoded psychologist’s couch. Black said such therapy often helps doctors like her better evaluate their patients, too.

“It helps us see life through our clients’ eyes. We notice what they’re looking at. We notice what draws their attention. If someone has social anxiety, for instance, as we’re walking with them, we can help them process their feelings as they’re experiencing the physical symptoms. And it’s COVID-friendly, too,” she said.

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Black said her patients would most likely be sitting somewhere — in an office, or at home via teleconferencing — receiving counseling. Walk-and-Talk Therapy adds a different dimension.

“I think sometimes when you get out in nature and away from four walls, you’re able to talk through some of the things that have held you back,” she said.

The pandemic has also restricted personal contact with other human beings. A walk-and-talk session helps restore that interaction somewhat.

“Right now, in this COVID crisis, I’m afraid we’ve lost the personal connection because of the restrictions we’ve had. By walking and talking, though, it allows us in a different way to reconnect with our clients and the people we’re helping support,” Black said.

Becca Shriver, Appalachian Life’s lead clinical therapist, uses Walk-and-Talk Therapy with her patients as well.

“With my adult clients, we’re literally walking the town. We’re getting out, we’re getting sunshine, we’re getting fresh air, and we’re doing our therapy right then and there. It allows us to connect in an entirely different way, while still keeping us all safe,” Shriver said.

With her younger patients, Shriver said there’s a location in Fairmont that’s a definite favorite.

“Kids love to meet at Palatine Park, where we’ll pass a soccer ball or play games that allow us to interact but still have social distance,” Shriver said. “Younger kids often don’t respond well to telehealth, so having the option to be in-person, even if it’s at the park, allows them to feel more comfortable and to open up more quickly.”

Shriver said she understands why her child patients prefer walk-and-talk to office or teletherapy sessions.

“Having this Walk-and-Talk modality makes our visits less sterile. It’s less like they’re in an office being treated and it helps us to be able to process through the messy stuff. For some people, particularly kids, it feels much less intimidating to simply walk and talk,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by one of the center’s current clients.

“It was the best blessing to start the Walk and Talks. I love being able to be outside and feel like life is normal again, even if it’s only for an hour. I can’t explain it either. I think it’s the fresh air, moving, and just being with someone that cares that makes me happy. I don’t feel quite as alone. I am happier even when life is hard,” said the Appalachian Life client, who requested anonymity.

The client also said the counselors have helped tremendously throughout the coronavirus pandemic, whether it’s in the form of Walk-and-Talk Therapy, teletherapy, or more traditional approaches.

“I love everything about this place. I don’t have many people in my life and when the COVID hit, I was pretty much alone in my home. I liked that I was able to still meet with my therapist on the phone,” the client said. “It was a really hard time and I really was alone. I would say I was even depressed. I was scared, too. because you just don’t know what to think. Having someone to help me sort through life.”

Black said she foresees Walk-and-Talk Therapy remaining a popular option for patients after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“I see Walk-and-Talk Therapy surviving beyond COVID because people like the option. We’ve found that many people prefer being outside and active. I work with many veterans, for instance. If I were to sit them down and tell them to stay still, they might go on ‘high alert.’ But if we’re out walking in a safe place in which they’re comfortable, it’s often a better option for them,” Black said.

And what becomes of Walk-and-Talk Therapy as Fairmont’s warm autumn days soon turn to wintry snowy ones?

“If COVID is still around and my clients want to continue our walk-and-talks, then we’ll put on boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. We’ll still walk it out,” Black said.