How Social Workers and Counselors Adapt When They Can’t Meet Clients Face-to-Face

How Social Workers and Counselors Adapt When They Can’t Meet Clients Face-to-Face

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GSEAP students and faculty continue to offer support during the pandemic.

Like all students in GSEAP’s master of social work (MSW) program, Tiffany Tubby spent the first part of the year settling into her field placement, getting accustomed to the responsibilities of her position, as she rotated among several Catholic schools in the greater Danbury, Conn. area. She held weekly “lunch bunch” meetings with small groups, visited classrooms to observe struggling students, and held regular team building sessions.

And then came March, and everything changed in response to Covid-19.

Overnight, teachers, staff, counselors, and social workers had to learn how to conduct their jobs remotely. “One of the first challenges was figuring out how to handle confidentiality,” says Tubby. “My work entails a lot of phone calls. I use Zoom or Google Meet for the older kids, and I still hold lunch hours online. But it’s been a struggle to create a new platform to connect with the kids. Overall, they’re feeling very disconnected.”

Regardless of the program, GSEAP students are required to earn a specific number of hours in the field in order to become licensed in their practice. As schools and offices closed in response to the pandemic, MSW students worked diligently to continue to support their clinical sites and clients in new ways.

"Our MSW students were more than up for the challenge of carrying on remotely and sought multiple methods for service delivery,” says Jay Taylor, LCSW, clinical director of social work. “Many students continued to see clients and run groups through telehealth platforms and those who were unable to provide direct services spent weeks preparing detailed Covid-19 response plans for their agencies. Our students were not only reacting to the community needs, they also identified an opportunity to be proactive in engaging underserved populations and worked tirelessly to form plans that would mitigate the devastation of the pandemic on marginalized groups."

Out of necessity, some regulations such as HIPAA were loosened, explains Jocelyn Novella, PhD, assistant professor of counselor education. “For example, phone calls are now allowed, but students aren’t permitted to call clients from a personal phone. We had to quickly get phones and accounts that were owned by the school or agency and determine new ways to provide supervision to students. There was a lot of creative thinking and collaboration involved.”

Tubby has certain students she speaks with weekly. “Some of them are handling this very well. But I’ve got a new group of students I haven’t yet met in person,” she explains. “Recently, I had a session with a four year old who was getting anxious about what he’s been hearing.”

Molly Donovan, a classmate of Tubby’s and fellow member of GSEAP’s first MSW cohort, began her field placement at a methadone clinic in Bridgeport, Conn. last September. Prior to the shutdown, her routine included monthly sessions with clients on a methadone maintenance program, facilitating group sessions, and working with intensive outpatient program clients. “Now we can’t offer these services in-person,” she says.

Instead, each client has an increased number of phone or telehealth video sessions. “A lot of clients have anxiety around what’s going on and a fear of the unknown. Some are on the verge of being homeless and worry they won’t be able to get into a shelter,” says Donovan, adding, “On the plus side, I get more one-on-one time. I was leery about telehealth in the beginning, but it’s been positive, and I feel I have a stronger rapport with clients than I did in the monthly group sessions.”

That positive outcome is no surprise to Dr. Novella who has conducted research in telemental health. She says that in many ways, the current crisis shows how telemental health services can benefit those who need it most, for example, individuals who are afraid to leave their homes, without transportation, or who live in areas without specialists. Dr. Novella is currently volunteering with The Emotional PPE Project, a non-profit that connects volunteer mental health practitioners with healthcare workers whose mental health has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

“This is a forced experiment with telemental health services, but one I believe will change the mental health space.”

Tags:  GSEAP

Last modified: 06-01-20 7:29 AM

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