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Teletherapy: opening more doors to mental wellness for high schoolers

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on students' mental health, Union County Public Schools (UCPS) took a proactive approach to support the well-being of high school students by proposing teletherapy to supplement services already in place. Teletherapy is remote mental health counseling, typically provided through video conferencing or phone calls.

Currently, the district employs nine mental health therapists, and there are an additional 11 provided through the Union County Collaborative. Due to the increased need for student mental health support resulting from the pandemic, on May 20, 2022, the Union County Board of Education voted to partner with Atrium Health to provide teletherapy services to its high school students using federal funds allocated for pandemic relief.

Initially launched at five high schools in the fall of 2022, the program has since expanded to all comprehensive high schools in the district.

The district's teletherapy program provides students with accessible and effective mental health care, regardless of location or schedule. Working with Atrium Health, UCPS has created a system where students can schedule virtual sessions with licensed clinicians who offer counseling and support during school or at home. It is a referral-based service, and parents must consent to it.

While the program is still relatively new, feedback from students, parents and school staff has been overwhelmingly positive. Students report feeling more supported and less stressed since starting virtual counseling and school counselors have seen an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services. The program has provided services to over 95 students since its launch.

"I have one student who has shown a lot of positive change since starting in December. The student's panic episodes and anxiety, in general, have decreased. The student has been able to apply the coping skills learned in our sessions outside of school," said Justine Mohre, an Atrium Health clinician.

One of the most significant advantages of teletherapy is the ability to connect with students who may not have been able to receive mental health care otherwise. Students who may have difficulty traveling to appointments or have jam-packed schedules due to academic and extracurricular activities can now receive the support they need at their convenience.

"Atrium Health's teletherapy allows flexibility for students to participate in therapy during the school day. The clinician makes sure to discuss with the school counselor the best time to meet with students, so their learning and instructional time is the least impacted," said Ashley Lawson, a Porter Ridge High School counselor.

Another benefit of the program is its flexibility. Students can make appointments during or outside traditional school hours, which makes it easier to fit therapy into their busy schedules. It also offers students greater privacy and comfort. Once the school year ends, clinicians can continue to meet with students. Students who may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed discussing their issues face-to-face with a clinician in an office setting can feel more at ease discussing sensitive topics in familiar settings.

"When I started, teletherapy didn't exist. I thought it would be hard getting into it and engaging kids, but kids today are so used to this sort of thing that I don't think it's an issue for them," said Michael Farley, an Atrium Health clinician. "If anything, I think it's easier. When you go to a therapist's office as a teen and have to sit on a couch across from somebody, sometimes it can be intimidating. Teletherapy helps remove some of that."

Atrium Health clinician Traci Sweetser and Forest Hills High's school social worker Emily Dilworth meet monthly to discuss students who may need more attention and identify effective strategies to support them.

"Forest Hills High has been very receptive to the program and has worked hard to accommodate the students," said Sweetser. "Sometimes, they give up their offices for sessions. The school counseling staff and Emily are extremely involved with their students."

Parent Jereka Rushing requested her son, Montrevis Waters, a freshman at Monroe High, receive teletherapy to help him cope with the grief of his best friend's and grandfather's deaths. She began to notice his body language was different. He was more withdrawn and introverted.

"His vibe was different. He started to want to spend more time in his room. He wasn't involving himself in the activities we were doing as a family. He got quieter," said Rushing. "I went to the school to see if talking to someone else could help. The school counselor and some teachers said they would look into resources. About a week later, he started teletherapy.

Rushing urges other parents to pay attention to changes in their children's behavior or demeanor. She also advises parents to work with the school so everyone is informed and can set a plan of action. She has observed some improvements, especially on the days he had sessions.

"On the days he did it, he wouldn't text me to go get him from school," said Rushing. "Him being able to talk to another male helped a lot. At home, it's only me, and his male role model was his grandfather, who is no longer with us."

Montrevis is interested in world history and science and enjoys working on group projects and experiments. Fishing with his grandfather, bowling with his family and playing basketball were things he enjoyed doing. He often spent time playing with his younger siblings. Montrevis knew he was becoming more distant.

"If I had a friend going through this, I'd tell them to let it out to an adult, someone they trust or to talk to the school counselor so they can help," said Montrevis. "I'm glad I was in teletherapy. I'd go after I finished my work. It made me feel better. I'd recommend it."

At home, Rushing makes sure to spend time with Montrevis doing things he likes, such as playing video games. They both laughed and agreed she was not very good at it. His favorite way to spend time with his mom is to go to the movies.

"Parents need to try doing things their kids like to get them to open up to them. "I have five children, so one-on-one time is important," said Rushing. "No matter how old your children are, check up on them. You never know what they might be going through. I'm an adult and still don't have it all together. We can't expect them to."

If a student needs teletherapy, they or their parents should contact their school counselor.