The ONU Counseling Center has replaced all face-to-face therapy appointments with teletherapy appointments for the 2020 fall semester. The switch was made at the end of March to best support students while maintaining COVID safety regulations.
The social distancing and sanitizing protocols that are a result of the COVID outbreak have disturbed aspects of campus life that are not seen daily by students. One such aspect is the inability to have in-person counseling sessions for students who need mental health treatment. Therapists, like ONU Director of Counseling Anthony Rivera, depend heavily on the face-to-face component of counseling appointments that is unavailable by teletherapy.
“When it comes to teletherapy,” Dr. Rivera said, “there are a few things that just go missing. It’s a little bit harder to read body language, it’s a little bit harder to assess for things like hygiene and that sort of thing when they’re not in the room.”
Faculty in the counseling center are continuously working to make the best out of the teletherapy method despite these limitations. The counselors on campus completed a telemental health training course by the American Psychological Association (APA) in March. This training is meant to counterbalance the disadvantage of teletherapy and to ease students through the transition.
The counseling center and ONU Chaplain David MacDonald have worked together in the past to best support the ONU community. Chaplain MacDonald provides spiritual direction sessions, which address the spiritual issues a student may be struggling with rather than mental health issues. Chaplain MacDonald has also made the switch from in-person sessions to virtual sessions in order to adhere to the social distancing regulations. These spiritual direction sessions are not meant to replace therapy but rather address religious struggles students may have and work together with the counseling center to best aid the student. Both try to console and help students who are struggling internally, and often refer students to the other advising body when the needs of the students are outside of their own training and experience.
The counseling center is additionally partnering with Chaplain MacDonald to create a series of videos that students will be able to use as a resource. These videos will provide students with helpful information that would have been available in last semester’s face-to-face counseling workshops, such as the Mindfulness program.
Teletherapy and virtual spiritual direction sessions are appearing to be as effective as in-person meetings, despite how early the semester is. Chaplain MacDonald has found that virtual interactions have the ability to be effective now that the pandemic has caused restrictions on face-to-face sessions to be placed. Counselors on campus recognize that therapy and counseling options are important in this time period as COVID-19 can have an adverse effect on an individual’s mental health.
If a student would like to make a virtual counseling appointment, an appointment can be scheduled with firstname.lastname@example.org. If a student would like to schedule a spiritual direction session with Chaplain MacDonald, he can be contacted at email@example.com, or stop by the chapel office.
If a student has a mental health emergency or crisis, there are therapists at the counseling center during the day from 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, available to talk and provide support. If it’s after hours, students are advised to contact Public Safety or the Student Affairs Response Team (SART) for help.
ONU therapists are committed to give students the most out of these virtual sessions. They even make adjustments to methods they normally use in order to best evaluate each student. According to Dr. Rivera, teletherapy is as effective as in-person counseling with these adjustments made. The counseling center has not seen a drop in counseling appointments made by students as the end of the first month of classes approaches. “[The pandemic] hasn’t really changed our numbers,” Dr. Rivera said. “We’re seeing just as many students as in past years, so I think [teletherapy] is working relatively well.”
Teletherapy is also convenient for students who may not want to walk to the counseling center for an appointment or to the Chaplain’s office for a session. ONU is a small campus, however, the journey to walk to these buildings can keep students from making an appointment. Students will have a greater sense of privacy to talk about their problems and can spend the appointment or session in a place they find comfortable instead.
Safe spaces are also being provided for these individuals who want to make teletherapy appointments or virtual spiritual direction sessions but do not have a private space to talk. “It might be a little intimidating going into a counselor’s office,” Chaplain MacDonald said. These spaces are meant to ease the transition into the virtual counseling process as much as possible for students. These spaces can be located within the university chapel and in McIntosh Center in private meeting rooms where there is no indication that a teletherapy appointment is happening. The counseling center will reserve one of these spaces when a student makes a counseling appointment if the student needs it.
A formal decision is yet to be made about whether the counseling center will continue virtual counseling once COVID safety regulations are lifted, as there are many positives and negatives to teletherapy. The face-to-face interactions of a counseling appointment are important in evaluating the needs of a student which is lost through a virtual appointment. On the other hand, teletherapy could prove to be beneficial during the summer months or breaks when students are not on campus and need someone to talk to.
Chaplain MacDonald would like for spiritual direction sessions to be made virtually available to students when face-to-face interactions are no longer limited. “I think there are people who would prefer to have something like this over an in-person visit,” Chaplain MacDonald said. “I’m hoping that if there are people that it will help, that we’ll continue to offer that.”