The Transition to Online Counseling: Confidentiality, Privacy, Flexibility, and Barriers for Student Participation

Dr. Ian Martin is an Associate Professor of Counseling at the University of San Diego where he teaches courses in school counseling and career development.  He is a founding member of the International Society for Policy Research and Evaluation of School-Based Counseling (ISPRESC) and a Distinguished Fellow for GlobalEd Leadership. We caught up with Ian to talk about providing counseling services to students both in the US and internationally.

The pandemic made online teaching a necessity overnight, shifting how we view and approach virtual learning for school counselors. In the US context, there had always been a distinct barrier between in-person and online mental health services, which were not always seen as authentic and have faced resistance from general practitioners and counselor educators. Online training for school counselors has over the years become a more popular niche market as schools invested resources in developing secure platforms and confidentiality procedures. Yet virtual degrees for counselors were often looked down upon as providing lesser quality learning for the necessary “people work” counselors engage in, and therefore there was not much interest from students.

Despite facing a steep learning curve at the onset of the pandemic, our 150 to 200 graduate students who are enrolled in the school counseling and clinical mental health programs at University of San Diego transitioned quite seamlessly to the new online learning environment. I have been impressed with their tech savvy creativity in designing new websites and finding new apps, programs, and resources to best serve their clients.

The larger challenge, however, has been getting kids to log on for counseling sessions and to ensure that the children and youth who need the most help have access to our services. Our graduate students work with a vulnerable population on the periphery, many of which have faced an incredible amount of instability in the past few months. Even kids who have access to a computer and high speed Internet are facing other barriers that make it difficult to participate. Many of their parents have lost their jobs and have been trying to figure out how to get by. Kids have moved in with family members. Many undocumented families do not have access to any type of government stimulus, which makes them even more vulnerable. Prior to the pandemic, I had been working on a long term career development research project in the Cajon Valley district in San Diego. Every year, we send out surveys to students but this year roughly 35 percent have not been logging into Google classroom and are therefore unaccounted for by the schools.

When kids do participate in counseling sessions, many new issues are arising. Guaranteeing confidentiality and privacy is a huge challenge when counselors do not have control over the environment. It is hard for counselors to establish a change-based relationship and delve into the issues when we are not sure if family members are listening in or will walk into the room at any time. New questions are coming up for us such as: What is mandatory reporting? What should a session look like in these circumstances and how long should it be? How do we try to keep kids safe? In this new context, counselors are being required to shift their focus–while they usually focus on a mix of mental health, career development and academics, we have been narrowing in on mental health now more than ever before. 

Districts have been hesitant to put in place telemental health or video conferencing policies due to the potential liability. High schools were the slowest to offer these services online, likely due to the large caseloads of students. There was the sense that if they open up the services, they might be overwhelmed and unable to provide adequate services.

Self-care is always so important and it has become even more essential during the pandemic–especially for those of us who are trying to help others who are struggling. Right now, because everyone is anxious, it is hard to recognize the severity of what is going on with our anxiousness and vulnerability. It is also harder to recognize when students are feeling anxious or depressed and for school counselors to feel like we are making a difference. Usually counselors are able to implement proactive programming to feel a sense of fulfillment. At this moment, many of us feel that we are sitting on our hands when there is so much work we could be doing. However, we have to wait for schools to figure out their plans before we can step in and support.

In the international sphere, the status of counseling in different countries is all over the map and the International Society for Policy Research and Evaluation in School-Based Counseling is currently putting together a special issue related to international responses to COVID-19. As a result, it is difficult to talk about a generalized experience or approach. In many parts of the world, students do not have access to counseling services and teachers often step in to provide a lot of mental health and counseling support. The silver lining I have seen in what is currently happening, especially internationally, is that there seems to be more openness to seeking counseling services online, which will especially benefit students who previously did not have access.

Due to the pandemic, professional organizations are relaxing some of their guidelines and teaming up with other specializations, which has been very helpful when we consider Mental Health First Aid. In the US, we have a strong professional tradition of providing credentials and licenses for everything, while internationally there has been more flexibility in the necessary training to be a counselor. The US could learn from that attitude, and worry less. We need to promote the idea that if people are hurting, we need to get over professional hurdles to get them the help they need the best we can.

If you or anyone you know is in need of support of services during this challenging time, below are some online resources that I might recommend. Thank you to my colleague Dr. Cat Griffith for adding to these resources:

Thank you Dr. Martin for bringing this relevant conversation to our attention. Supporting counseling students and the clients they serve is especially important as the pandemic evolves and in consideration for the eventual return to in-person classes. To learn more about Dr. Martin’s work please visit his university profile page here and his GlobalEd Leadership page.

Meet Dr. Martin: Ian Martin