Answering the Call

A new telehealth clinic staffed by graduate social work students is delivering counseling services to the Jersey shore region.

In June 2020, just three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that found that 40% of U.S. adults reported they were struggling with mental health or substance use—a significant increase from similar studies done the prior year.

To meet the growing need for counseling services to support people through the pandemic, and to provide a hands-on professional learning opportunity for graduate students, in July the School of Social Work launched the Monmouth University Community Care Telehealth Clinic (MUCCTC), a free, online counseling service available to adults living in New Jersey.

“We had always wanted to start some type of free clinic for social work, but we had never really considered telehealth before,” says Elena Mazza, Ph.D., clinic coordinator and director of the social work master’s degree program. “But between the stress people were, and still are, under due to pandemic-related challenges such as job loss, loss of insurance, and a shortage of in-person counseling services, we knew there was a growing need for accessible telecounseling.”

Last spring, Mazza worked with Robin Mama, Ph.D., dean of the School of Social Work, and several licensed clinical faculty members to develop the program policies and set up a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing platform. She then recruited six clinical graduate student interns who, with COVID -19 infection numbers surging, were having difficulty securing field placements they needed in order to graduate. The clinic offered the students a way to get supervised, hands- on experience in order to fulfill their field education hours, while also serving the regional community.

The program, which is open to New Jersey residents 18 years or older who are not members of the Monmouth University community, launched over the summer with interns seeing their first patients in July.

Itiesha Glover ’21, one of the graduate interns who helped to build the program and do outreach across the state, says the clinic helped to quickly fill a void left open by the pandemic.

“Right now, everything ’s telehealth, but at that point, when the pandemic hit, telehealth wasn’t that big of a thing, and trying to convince someone that they can get the same level of care [virtually rather than in person] was something that we were concerned about,” she says. “But it’s become such a great program and resource for people, especially in this environment… being able to meet people where they are. We came right on time, right when we were needed.”

Each intern works closely with four clinical licensed faculty members, who volunteer their time to support the program. The faculty members meet with the interns at least once a week to discuss cases and conduct trainings, and one faculty member is always on call while interns meet with their clients to provide additional support if needed.

For clients, the clinic offers flexible hours with counseling sessions available seven days a week via phone, tablet, or computer.

Mazza says each person who calls in is initially screened by a licensed clinical faculty member before they are scheduled for their first appointment with an intern, which they are usually able to book within a week.

The interns are able to see an average of five to eight clients per week, and there are currently no time limitations in terms of the number of weeks clients can receive counseling services. Mazza says that even when an intern graduates, if one of their clients wants to continue receiving counseling they will help transition the client to one of the incoming graduate interns. That way the clinic is able to offer services continually throughout the year without having to break from May to September.

To date, the MUCCTC has served nearly 100 people from seven counties across the state.

Glover, who has worked for New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency for nearly 20 years, says she believes telehealth is here to stay. Therefore, having a program in which Monmouth graduate students can gain hands-on experience providing telecounseling, while being accessible to people all around the state, is more important than ever.

“Even outside of the pandemic, some people are really hesitant to get counseling because they may have negative connotations attached to therapy—they don’t want to be seen walking in or out of the office, they worry others can hear what they’re saying,” Glover says. “So being able to meet people where they are—in their home, where they know their environment and can talk freely—that’s a really positive thing for people…. It’s very accessible and a reason why telehealth should definitely stay.”

The program has become so popular that Mazza has received calls from other universities across the country that are interested in adopting a similar model.

In addition, MUCCTC has partnered with a number of organizations that refer their clients to the clinic, including community colleges, family support centers, veterinary clinics, visiting nurses, and agencies providing recovery from substance use services.

Mazza says her hope is to grow the program in order to include more interns and to serve more clients, especially from underserved and vulnerable populations like the elderly, who might have no method of transportation to receive counseling services in person. There are also plans for expanding the program to work with groups across campus, like the occupational therapy and the professional counseling programs, to make the clinic more interdisciplinary.

In addition, the interns who graduated have all volunteered to be part of the steering committee to ensure that MUCCTC remains a leader in providing free counseling services across New Jersey while supporting the growth of future professional social workers.

“Our goal is to make this last forever, to be a resource for the community, but also for our students to get one-on-one experience working with clients,” says Mazza. “We’ve received calls from clients thanking us for this service and referring friends and family members to the clinic for counseling, and it just makes us so happy to be able to help people when they need it most.”