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Oklahoma State University

Virtual counseling sessions support students, community

Thursday, April 30, 2020

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Telehealth services enable mental health professionals to support their clients amidst coronavirus concerns. Oklahoma State University counseling students, new to leading virtual therapy sessions, are adapting quickly.

The Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic, part of the OSU School of Community Health Sciences, Counseling and Counseling Psychology, and the Center for Family Services, part of the OSU Department of Human Development and Family Science, provide counseling services led by OSU master’s and doctoral students under faculty supervision. However, with the OSU campus closed to visitors, services have gone virtual.

“As a clinic, our responsibility is to not abandon our clients and to do no harm,” Dr. Amanda Szarzynski, clinical director for the Center for Family Services, said. “My initial concern when we learned campus would be closing was that we not let any clients fall between the cracks.”

Szarzynski supervises marriage and family therapy (MFT) graduate students at the CFS, some currently in their first semester of conducting counseling sessions. While some were apprehensive towards transitioning to virtual therapy, many are excited to become familiar with technology as telehealth becomes increasingly popular in U.S. healthcare, Szarzynski said.

“They're getting an opportunity they otherwise would not have had if not for us having to adapt for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Szarzynski said.

Overcoming challenges

Alexis Lamb, a second-year MFT master’s student from Broken Arrow, Okla., said while she looks forward to meeting with her clients again in person she is learning to adapt.

“At first, I was a little nervous about how clients would respond, but my clients actually really love it,” Lamb said. “I feel like they are inviting me into their space, and they can show me a lot more than I would see in a clinic.”

Lamb added she is proud the CFS has maintained the same level of privacy as pre-pandemic services, even as some governing bodies in counseling and therapy have temporarily loosened requirements due to technology limitations. Other technology limits, though, require more creativity.

“It’s difficult to set the structure of therapy,” Lamb said of clients now at home. “We have to be really intentional about using our words more than just body language because I can’t point to who I’d like to speak.”

Dr. Tom Berry, Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic director, supervises doctoral and master’s students providing counseling services to OSU students and Stillwater community members. Receiving therapy outside of the clinic building requires creativity, but Berry said clients have shown resilience.

“Not all of our clients have technology, and not all of our clients have privacy at home,” Berry said. “Sometimes, they're going out and sitting in their car as it’s the only [private] place they have.”

Because many students returned home to finish online classes, some students living out-of-state were transferred to counselors within their state to meet legal guidelines. Berry said this creates new openings for Stillwater community members and students to receive counseling services amidst the stresses of coronavirus.

“We haven’t had new people seeking therapy, which I’ve kind of found surprising,” Berry said. “I’m not sure they know we are still taking clients.”

Serving the community

Szarzynski believes a pandemic is the perfect time for new couples to seek therapy.

“As mental health professionals and as marriage and family therapists, we're hearing a lot of warnings about how everyone being stuck at home is going to create mental health and relationship problems down the road,” Szarzynski said.

Rather than waiting until mental health and relationship crises emerge, Szarzynski encourages a more proactive approach, especially during the increased free time of self-isolation.

“Treat it like you're going to the doctor and getting a checkup,” Szarzynski said. “But a checkup for your marriage, your family or for you as an individual. Let somebody who's non-biased talk to you about what's going on and listen.”

Lamb adds a virtual therapy session could actually be an opportunity for a new client to ease into building a relationship with their counselor while still in the comfort of their own home.

“If people are needing services, I would encourage them to get ahold of our clinic and take advantage of the resources we have for the public,” Lamb said.

Supporting students

As OSU students seek to support their clients, faculty are continuing to support them.  Berry said he holds weekly staff meetings to hear his students’ concerns. 

“A lot of it is just giving people space to talk about what's going on,” Berry said. “Having people talk about what they're dealing with on a personal level, so people have a sense of connection as part of the team.”

He encourages his students to practice what they teach their clients. 

“Some of it is even just things as simple as breathing exercises,” Berry said. “When we’re stressed, we tend to breathe from our chest. However, relaxed breathing comes from the diaphragm.” 

Szarzynski has taken a creative approach to remain connected with her students, Pandemic Pizza Project.

“I told the students, ‘If you're having a bad day, or you just don't feel like cooking a meal, just text me an emoji of a pizza and your address, and I’ve got you covered. No questions asked.’ When possible, I even deliver them to their doorstep myself.”

However, Szarzynski emphasizes it is the effort of all faculty ensuring students succeed in supporting their clients through the pandemic, something she believes is a testament to the strength of the program.

“Our faculty have risen to the occasion and just done what we have to do to make this as easy as possible - whether that's for clients or students,” Szarzynski said.

The Center for Family Services provides family therapy, remarriage and step-family counseling, premarital counseling, parenting classes and individual therapy. The Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic provides psychological testing and group and individual therapy.

Individuals interested in contacting the Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic can contact the front desk at piofrontdesk@okstate.edu or (405) 744-3287. The Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic will be offering services for the summer starting June 8. Additionally, the Center for Family Services can be contacted at (405) 744-5058.

MEDIA CONTACT: Brittany Bowman | 405-744-9347 | brittany.bowman@okstate.edu

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