Telehealth System Provides Online Therapy Amid Pandemic

By Abby Gutierrez

Counseling centers and therapists in San Marcos have implemented the Telehealth therapy system in hopes of continuing to treat students and residents with mental illness amid the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Telehealth therapy provides services through an online system like Zoom or Cisco Meetings. It’s become the primary way of serving mental health patients beginning in March and throughout quarantine to avoid physical contact and prevent COVID-19 exposure. 

Texas State counselor Shana Varnell said the Counseling Center acted quickly in adjusting to the change involving the pandemic in order to help students ease into the transition as best they could. 

“Immediately as a center, our priority is to figure out how to provide those services to students and to be able to be there and to give them what we promise and what we’re here to do, which is to be that support system for them,” Varnell said. 

According to Varnell and therapist Shelley Roberts, though the switch to a teletherapy system was a relatively smooth transition, it didn’t come with disadvantages and challenges. 

Varnell and Roberts share their experiences switching to the Telehealth System to continue providing therapy to students and San Marcos residents during COVID-19.

Varnell also said she and her coworkers had to complete extra training to be sure that they are qualified and trained in providing telehealth therapy. 

“For the clinicians outside the leadership team, they got us connected to specific training…So, we got through those as quickly but also as thoroughly as we could,” Varnell said. “We had meetings to discuss the training to make sure we were all up to date and on the same page of how we were to move forward.”

In her experience, Roberts said she has seen a rapid increase in the amount of students requesting her services since the beginning of quarantine, especially with patients who were struggling with their mental health before COVID-19. 

“For students who already have difficulty motivating themselves to get up, get dressed and get to campus and sit through an hour and a half class then this pandemic has not helped whatsoever,” Roberts said. 

Roberts also said she believes the decrease in motivation has led to an increase in depression and anxiety. 

“Keeping up with assignments is already difficult for them, and once they get behind that’s when we see anxiety come in and even depression because the performance level has gone down, and maybe they have pressures from families, pressures from themselves, and pressures from professors.”

Below is a map pinpointing 10 different therapists and counseling centers in the San Marcos area who are providing telehealth services and accepting new patients as of July 20, 2019.

According to Texas State Counseling Center, this provides numerous therapists and counseling centers who’re available for students and San Marcos residents through Telehealth system as of July 20, 2019.

According to a survey conducted by the National College Health Assessment that analyzes the impact of COVID-19 on academic success and mental health well-being of college students, there has been an increase in struggles with mental illness on the 14 college campuses surveyed. The graph compares mental health in Fall 2019 and March through May 2020. 

NCHA Records Student’s Mental Health Fall 2019 vs. Spring 2020 (Created with Flourish)

In addition, NCHA surveys from the past three years — Spring 2017, Spring 2018 and Spring 2019 — show a steady increase in students seeking out treatment for specifically depression and anxiety.

NCHA Records Mental Illness Among College Students (Created with Flourish)

Sophomore health science major Sofia Rodriguez has been doing therapy for five years, and she said the Coronavirus has caused her to greatly modify the coping techniques that she’s developed throughout her time in counseling. 

“When you work so long in therapy on learning to use your external support system for support and that gets stripped away, it can be really difficult to bounce back from that. It’s like learning a whole skill set with how to cope with this new reality.”

Rodriguez also said the isolation in quarantine was also very difficult to learn to get used to. 

“Being more isolated than usual has definitely been harder on me in terms of how I choose to cope when things go horribly wrong and my ability to reach out to my support system in a physical sense,” Rodriguez said. 

In referring to the benefits and disadvantages of the telehealth therapy system, Rodriguez said though online access can be easier, in a lot of ways it is dependent on factors that can be out of one’s control sometimes. 

“You lose a lot of that interpersonal communication like seeing someone’s body language and facial expression…It can seem a bit impersonal sometimes, but also wi-fi,” Rodriguez said. “There have been so many times when I’ve been in the middle of a really deep conversation, and all of a sudden you get logged out.”

From the NCHA data report, below is a pie chart showing COVID-19’s impact on mental health access for college students.

Access for Students to Mental Health Care During COVID-19 Pandemic (Created with Flourish)

Senior psychology major Reagan Hill began counseling at the Counseling Center through the telehealth system in October, and she said it has been a major help in learning how to cope with severe depression and anxiety caused by the Coronavirus. 

“(I’ve learned) to give myself positive affirmations because with depression, I am harder on myself and I tend to self-criticize myself more,” Hill said. “Also taking deep breaths when I start to feel anxious and focusing on one place in the room to ground my mind again.”

Hill said getting fresh air is sometimes the best thing anyone can do during the pandemic. 

“Going outside, going on a walk, getting exercise to help clear my mind are things that help,” Hill said. “Also just not being on social media all of the time because I think the (COVID-19-related statistics and news) can make someone feel anxious.”

Varnell said the Counseling Center provides many alternatives to one-on-one therapy for students in need of help developing effective coping techniques and adjusting to COVID-19 like webinars, group counseling and other online services. 

For more information on mental health resources, visit the Texas State Counseling Center’s website or call (512) 245-2208 to set up a Texas State telehealth counseling appointment.

How to set up a Telehealth appointment with the Texas State Counseling Center (Created with Canva)

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