CSU therapy center sees benefits of moving to telehealth during pandemic

Screen shot of CTRAC team meeting

The Childhood Trauma and Resilience Assessment Center team meets virtually for some case planning before trauma assessments.

While COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many sectors of society, the leaders of a therapy center at Colorado State University say the move to serving clients remotely last year has had some benefits that will be long-lasting.

The Center for Family and Couple Therapy, based in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, is a classic model of the land-grant university mission because it simultaneously educates students and serves the community. Master’s students in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program and Ph.D. students in the Applied Developmental Science Program gain valuable experience working with actual clients as they earn the 500 clinical hours required to become therapists, and the community benefits from the therapy sessions that the center provides. The center charges for its services on a sliding scale ranging from its $20 student rate to $80 per session, depending on a client’s income and the number of people in the household. It also accepts Medicaid and is a Commitment to Campus provider for CSU faculty and staff.

Before the pandemic, student therapists would spend their first year seeing clients under the supervision of faculty who observed sessions through a one-way mirror in offices located in the Gifford Building. Faculty provided feedback to the students before and after the sessions, and could even phone into the therapy room if they needed to consult with a student during a client visit. But when COVID-19 prompted the shift to remote learning last March, the center could no longer hold in-person sessions.

Stephanie Seng
Stephanie Seng

And its director, Stephanie Seng, was sailing on a Semester at Sea voyage at the time. Assistant Director Shawn Whitney recalls that making the shift to serving clients on Microsoft Teams happened swiftly, and after a brief hiatus, in April the center was back to full capacity.

Benefits to telehealth

Once it was determined that the clients had sufficient equipment to use Teams and could find a confidential and safe place to talk, students started meeting with clients online, while their faculty supervisors monitored the conversation with their cameras and microphones off, texting the student therapists to provide guidance during the sessions.

“Beforehand, clients knew there were supervisors behind the mirror, but this is a very different experience,” Whitney explained. “The supervisors are actually on the same call, so not only are the clients dealing with doing therapy online, they’re getting used to having another person literally in their session with them. I’m so proud of our clients and students; they rose to the occasion and embraced this as a viable form of improving mental health. And there are some benefits to telehealth that we wouldn’t have realized if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”

For one thing, all paperwork and payments went digital.

“COVID kind of fast-tracked all of that,” Whitney said. “It really forced our hand to move more quickly to become paperless and electronic in how we deliver our service.”

“It’s going to help the students, actually, because telehealth is the future,” Seng added.

They also point out that operating remotely meant clients no longer had to drive to campus and find parking. In some cases, it eliminated a two-hour round-trip commute for clients to attend a one-hour therapy session. In addition, it expanded the reach of the center as well as the reach of its sister organization, the Childhood Trauma and Resilience Assessment Center, which provides assessments and trainings around the state.

Shawn Whitney
Shawn Whitney

“There are some clients who wouldn’t have chosen therapy unless it had been done online,” Seng said. “I’m 100% certain that even when we return to campus, we will continue to do telehealth and remote trainings. We’ve now had online trainings in trauma-informed care with 100 people in them from all over the state, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

“It’s become the new normal,” Whitney added. “I think clients are actually getting more out of sessions than they got before, because there are fewer barriers. This is going to be such a huge part of therapy going forward.”

Intensified demand

They report that the demand for therapy has intensified during the pandemic. In the past, it was normal for the center to periodically have a wait list at busy times, but there’s been a wait list since April.

“It’s a very real problem,” Whitney said. “I can’t keep up with the demand, and nor can my colleagues. Mental health services are hard to come by at this time. There doesn’t seem to be an ebb and flow now; it’s just a consistent demand.”

Fortunately, Seng added, since the center has a large staff, the CFCT is able to move through the wait list fairly quickly.

In addition to Seng and Whitney, the center is overseen by faculty members Shelley Haddock, Kelley Quirk and Toni Zimmerman.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Forever Stalwart: Rising Above the Pandemic

This article is part of the “Forever Stalwart: Rising Above the Pandemic” series, telling the inside stories of how the CSU Ramily has rallied its brilliant minds, great hearts, creativity and collaborative spirit to continue its land-grant mission and overcome the challenges of COVID-19 with innovation and resilience.