Heeding the call: Monmouth educator says telehealth is proving its worth during pandemic, which could change counseling’s future

As much as mental health experts keep saying the demand for their services runs deep in New Jersey during the pandemic … there’s no one who can say they’ve fully excavated just how low the change to daily life has brought Jerseyans.

But Elena Mazza of Monmouth University can guess: It’s probably deeper than any one organization can get to the bottom of.

And Mazza, clinic coordinator for the school and director of its social work master’s degree program, said the fullest extent of this mental health crisis is perhaps being buried in the day-to-day stresses in the lives of Jerseyans.

“For people who have lost others because of this virus, the grief part is still coming,” she said. “So many people weren’t able to have services and have some closure with loved ones. That’s why you hear a lot of discussion that the worst might be still to come.”

It’s for that reason that Mazza’s expects Monmouth University School of Social Work‘s online counseling service will see a demand that it might eventually need more helping hands to meet. The last thing she wants is for someone to be turned away from the school’s new counseling support program.

Nationally, around 60% of psychiatrist and psychologist visits are taking place virtually today, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

It’s a stark change from the time before the pandemic, when Medicare beneficiaries couldn’t count on telehealth in this area being covered. Most private insurance plans also didn’t reimburse this virtual care at the same rates as in-person visits, if they did at all.

Mazza said people were making the obvious financial calculus before: Between paying one’s bills and getting counseling, keeping the electricity on and water running took the highest priority.

But she’s been a big believer in the value of adding the more flexible telehealth option to the mental health equation. So, when telehealth started to be widely adopted around March’s state lockdown, the clinic coordinator for Monmouth said it just made sense to do it as well — and for free.

The program combines the expertise of four licensed clinical social work faculty members and six clinical graduate intern staffers into what’s being called the Community Care Telehealth Clinic. It’s free for adults living in New Jersey who aren’t members of the university’s community.

This and other telehealth programs like it — which offer people the opportunity to connect for counseling via cell phones, computers and tablets — can go a long way to helping people improve their emotional well-being during a tough time, Mazza said, even if the virtual predicament everyone is in during the pandemic isn’t ideal.

“There are the obvious disadvantages, such as the fact that your internet could fail,” she said. “You also don’t have a closed-off office space for people receiving counseling. So, if someone is telling me how upset they are about a relationship, their partner could be in the other room and could overhear them, upsetting the usual confidentiality.”

In-person visits remain a gold standard in the minds of professionals dealing with mental health issues because of how often body language is used to decipher how someone is feeling.

Mazza admits telehealth means flying blind in that regard. But what can still be effective is just a different, more direct approach to communication.

And it’s a crucial thing to learn for students, like the graduate interns assisting in Monmouth’s program. They might be entering a profession that’s on the cusp of a wider embrace of virtual services, or one that’s at least better prepared to make sudden shifts to these virtual platforms when it’s called for.

“And I believe there’s potential to make good progress with telehealth — definitely,” she said. “There are, however, some folks it’s just not appropriate or helpful for. It really depends on the person.”

One group she’s not skeptical about is older Jerseyans. She expects they’re as likely to benefit from telehealth options as younger peers, despite concerns that technology might be a hurdle for those who aren’t using devices such as tablets or even cell phones on a daily basis.

Older individuals, especially those in long-term care facilities that might be taking extra precautions during the spread of COVID-19, are particularly vulnerable to mental health woes, Mazza said, due to how isolated they might be right now.

Monmouth’s new telehealth program hasn’t reached anyone in this population just yet, but, given the deepening need for services across all populations, Mazza feels there’s a need to.

“The only challenge in being to help them is just getting the word out to them and making sure they’re confident about it,” she said.

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