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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has killed more than than 300,000 people in the United States and induced stress in millions of people, including college students. University of Delaware Prof. Timothy Fowles and graduate students in the UD Psychological Services Training Center are trying to help.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has killed more than 300,000 people in the United States and induced stress in millions of people, including college students. University of Delaware Prof. Timothy Fowles and graduate students in the UD Psychological Services Training Center are trying to help.

A help for mental health

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Graduate students develop a free telehealth service for those suffering from pandemic-related stress

When it comes to a global pandemic like coronavirus (COVID-19), the silver linings are few and far between. People across the country are facing social isolation, job loss and, if not full-blown panic attacks, a constant low-hum of anxiety — all day, every day. 

But there is also a bright spot. 

“Everyone is realizing how fragile we are in terms of mental and emotional health,” said Timothy Fowles, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and director of the Psychological Services Training Center at the University of Delaware. “And that kind of realization might erode the stigma surrounding therapy more and more.”

In Fowles’s mind, seeing a counselor for a mental health issue should be viewed no differently than visiting a physical therapist after an injury. Neurological processes — like bones — become compromised. In each case, he said, an expert can help you, via carefully researched exercises, restore proper functioning.

For Delawareans, locating such a mental health coach just became a whole lot easier. Alongside Fowles, graduate students in UD’s Clinical Science Program have developed a free, brief telehealth psychotherapy intervention accessible to all those in the state feeling the stress of the virus. In other words: just about everyone.

“In the early days of the pandemic, I was reading a lot of stories about increases in distress and mental health problems,” said Alexandra Tabachnick, a fifth-year doctoral candidate who conceived of the idea. “I started thinking about everything that I’ve learned in my training, and I saw a match between this need in the community and the skills my peers and I have gained. It sort of snowballed from there.”

Over the summer, Tabachnick worked closely with fellow clinical science students, notably Nadia Bounoua, on constructing a mode of treatment. Due to pandemic restrictions, face-to-face consultations were out of the question, so this meant establishing HIPAA-secure lines (phone and Zoom) for a telehealth format. Not only is such a medium potentially more convenient for people now juggling a combination of remote work, caregiving and homeschooling, emerging research shows it leads to improved patient outcomes

The group developed a system whereby an interested person can reach out via the phone or internet in order to schedule up to four personalized, evidence-based sessions for free. That is enough time for a student therapist (supervised by licensed clinicians at UD) to make a diagnosis if there is one, guide a client through appropriate coping mechanisms and obtain more comprehensive resources, if needed. Some of the help clients might be offered during these consultations? Mindfulness training, interpersonal relationship advice, even basic sleep or lifestyle coaching.

“You may think: ‘Oh, yeah, I know what to do on my own’,” Fowles said. “But knowing what to do and actually getting it done are two different things, and having a trained professional guiding you through it can make a big difference.”

There is no minimum stress threshold a person must pass in order to be a good candidate for the intervention — any amount of overwhelmed is overwhelmed enough. Because the tensions of the pandemic have woven themselves so completely into everyday life, “sometimes people can have depression or anxiety or be struggling mightily to make it through the day and not even realize it, so just checking in with a professional can help,” Fowles said. Fighting more with a significant other? Upping your alcohol intake? Dropping the ball on school or work obligations? These are all signs a consultation is warranted. Those interested in learning more should visit the Psychological Services Center website.  

And if that aforementioned, quickly-eroding societal stigma surrounding therapy is still lingering in the back of your mind? Remember that you have likely been conditioned to view mental health counseling as a heck of a lot scarier than it is.

“The media often depicts therapy sessions as being really intense deep dives into childhood trauma,” Tabachnick said. “And they can be. But often, it’s not as intimidating as previously imagined. So if people are wondering about it, I encourage them to give it a try. Just know that no one is going to judge you if you want to change your mind or pick a different treatment model. At the end of the day, this is all about finding a good fit for you.”

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