Counseling students in Mercer’s College of Professional Advancement (COPA) are getting first-hand experience in telemental health.
Master’s students studying counseling do three semesters of field experience where they work in settings like private practices, substance abuse treatment facilities, inpatient behavioral health hospitals, P-12 public and private schools, Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency programs and other community agencies where counselors are employed.
They must work a minimum 100 hours during their practicum semester and an additional minimum 600 hours during two semesters of internship, when they are expected to become fully functioning staff members, said Dr. David Lane, COPA professor of counseling. The students are overseen by supervisors at their work sites as well as by Mercer faculty during weekly meetings.
Most of the sites have transitioned to telemental health sessions in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Each semester, 60-90 students are involved in practicum/internship, and 90 percent of the current students are now doing that work online.
In telemental health, counseling and mental health services are offered through technological platforms such as video, telephone and text, said Dr. Tyler Wilkinson, assistant counseling professor and coordinator for the Ph.D. program in counselor education and supervision. It’s a growing field because of its accessibility and convenience.
“The research is very clear that virtual counseling is equally effective as face to face,” Dr. Lane said. “There are some limitations of course, but both therapy and medicine are moving rapidly toward a much greater incorporation of technology into practice.”
In order to supervise students’ remote counseling, Mercer’s 11 counseling faculty members had to become certified as telemental health counselors, with specific knowledge in telemental health supervision, said Dr. Karen Rowland, associate professor and chair of the COPA Department of Counseling. The delivery of supervision is done synchronously through technology-assisted media with the faculty at one site while the students are at distant and/or multiple sites.
The Composite Board for Professional Counselors requires Georgia supervisors to have a minimum of six hours of basic telemental health counseling and three hours of continuing education in telemental health. These courses typically cover the different counseling delivery methods, ethics and laws, risk management concerns, integration of theory in a digital space, and assessment, Dr. Wilkinson said.
Counseling faculty had multiple sites to choose from for their training. Some took their courses with the Telehealth Certification Institute, whose CEO Raymond Barrett happens to be a 2007 graduate of Mercer’s counseling master’s program.
Telehealth supervisors are required to inform the supervisees on the laws, rules and regulations regarding telemental health, Barrett said. The training shows professors how to assess the students’ competencies in telemental health and create learning plans for providing services in that matter.
“Our students can continue, hardly missing a step, in their training and now they have a very important additional skill set in telemental health,” Dr. Lane said. “A second more personal benefit (of doing training through the Institute) is to reconnect with one of our alumni and see the huge contribution to the field that he is making on a national stage.”
Online training has allowed Mercer counseling faculty members to get credentialled quickly rather than having to find and wait for face-to-face sessions, Dr. Lane said. Dr. Wilkinson said they worked with Mercer Information Technology to set up a secure server space where students can upload clinical documents and audio recordings for review while still protecting the privacy of their clients.
In addition, a comprehensive page of telemental health resources was added to relevant counseling courses in Canvas, the university’s learning management system, and the department fielded many questions from site supervisors and students to get everyone one the same page, Dr. Rowland said.
The transition has been “relatively seamless,” since COPA was already doing a lot of online teaching and had previously hosted Zoom workshops, Dr. Wilkinson said. Faculty continue to consult and supervise students for one and a half hours each week in Zoom meetings.
“Learning how to do telemental health counseling will help provide students with an additional set of tools that can help them in their careers,” he said. “Thinking through the pros and cons of telemental health counseling by experiencing it first hand is an excellent learning experience.”
This experience shows students options for their future work, where they could supplement in-person sessions with telemental health sessions or even have a full-time virtual practice. It also shows them how technology can help them provide counseling services to underserved areas, Dr. Wilkinson said.
“Right now with COVID-19, anyone who’s going to provide direct services has to do it remotely,” Barrett said. “However, many people on the individual level need services provided virtually. When students graduate, they will be empowered with that knowledge to be able to use technology in their services in a legally compliant way.”