Online counseling looks promising in early stages

Online counseling looks promising in early stages

Therapist Assisted Online, the counseling center’s newest form of treatment, has provided students with an alternative form of mental health treatment since the fall semester and is set to reach more students this spring.

TAO was adopted by Counseling and Testing Services over the summer of 2016 and was implemented in October. The program’s website describes it as an “online platform of tools and educational materials to help you learn about and change how you think and feel.” Students using it have access to modules that are designed for anxiety and depression, but can be used by anyone.

“This allows us to engage more students and provides greater access to mental health services,” said Dr. Jay Darr, the TAO coordinator for Counseling and Testing Services at UNT. “It’s not necessarily that counselors have more time, but that more students can be reached.”

If a student expresses interest in online counseling or a therapist sees a student that might benefit from it, an initial intake appointment is used to evaluate the student’s needs and what type of therapy best suits them.

At the most basic level, TAO self-help is available for students to use at their own pace whenever they want.

Another level offered is TAO adjunct, in which therapists assign modules to complete alongside in-person therapy sessions. High-intensity/low-engagement is the most involved level of using TAO, all modules are completed online and the therapy sessions are weekly 30-minute video conferences with a therapist.

“It’s not for everybody,” Darr said. “People who like the idea of online-based programs are more inclined to use it than someone who wants the face-to-face approach.”

Dr. Tamara Knapp-Grosz, Senior Director of Counseling and Testing Services, made the decision to offer TAO as a mental health resource. The program was then approved and funded by the university administration. The one-time payment costs less than hiring more therapists, but there is no limit on how many students can utilize it.

The Counseling and Testing Services has worked with other departments to ensure that students are aware of TAO’s availability, and Darr said it has been encouraging to receive such widespread support from on-campus partners.

In the four months that TAO has been available at UNT, 76 students have opted in. Darr said less than a full semester is too soon to tell how effective the program is, but he expects time, advertising and outreach to bring in more students.

“It’s too early for feedback, but we hope to have data at the end of the semester,” Darr said. “That data would come from surveys that students have taken after using our services for an extended period of time.”

According to a guide available on the company’s website, TAO has been “validated with over 100 studies in 20 countries.” But the lack of data at UNT means Darr cannot yet judge TAO’s effectiveness among the students here. They could be asked directly, but information gathered over time more accurately determines how students improve from the program as a whole.

Although the extensive waitlist that troubled counseling services has not been an issue since last year, the use of an online counseling platform with less therapist interaction has allowed more students to receive help in a quicker period of time. Since TAO is available anywhere with internet access, the rate and time for completing the modules is completely up to the user.

Criticisms of using this method for counseling instead of in-person treatment include the lack of a client-therapist relationship, lower human interaction, and less time to discuss what the student is struggling with. TAO believes that the student becomes more accountable by spending less time in counseling, motivating them to spend more time on task and take more control of their progress.

“The program has updates, and there’s always new modules for students to try,” Darr said. “It’s improving constantly.”

Dr. Sherry Benton, the company’s founder, said the main advantage to making it online is that it allows professionals to assess mental health on an individual level. Therapists can match a student’s responses and needs with specific modules, then discuss how those did or did not help in the face-to-face or videoconference sessions.

This method allows both the student and the professional to continuously adjust their use of the program. With traditional counseling methods, therapists often learn what does not work by seeing whether or not their clients return.

Susan Powers, the Client Success Manager for TAO, said she believes universities are among the best fit for TAO because it accommodates students’ busy schedules.

“The key to TAO is that we created a way to get clients and students more engaged in their own wellness,” Powers said. “It’s designed to fit in your life in little chunks. It’s great for kids in intensive programs with no time off because they can get effective treatment as an instant service. Counseling is in one place and school is in another.”

Darr is equally enthusiastic, and although he is not able to say the extent it has improved the mental health of students using it, he is optimistic about the potential.

“It provides help to more students in an efficient, evidence-based, cost-efficient way,” Darr said.

Featured Image: The Therapist Assisted Online logo. Courtesy | UNT’s TAO Page

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