For school counselor Karrah Briley, working remotely and video conferencing with her students has come with a pretty steep learning curve.
"I had a call with a student today who had four other siblings in the house," she said. "It was very hard to hear her, and it was very difficult for her to have privacy."
Briley works at Triton Regional High School in northeast Massachusetts. She leads a two-month program called Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition or BRYT which helps kids transition back to school after a mental health-related absence. Typically, Briley would see her eight students a lot during the day.
"Students come into our classroom first thing in the morning and we’re with them all day long. So they have that constant ability to be checking in with us," she said.
But with schools closed, that can’t happen. Briley is trying to reach out daily by email or text and video chat with each student at least once a week. She also set up a Google Classroom that she populates daily with videos and activities that students can use to work on coping skills.
To help counselors like Briley navigate these new virtual settings, the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, which created BRYT, is coordinating video conference meetings and training sessions.
"Welcome, it’s good to see you all this morning," said Sarah Rigney, a school support specialist with the Brookline Center as she welcomed a group of four school counselors who joined one of this week's meetings.
The conversation covered several topics. First, direction from administration regarding how to continue providing services to students varies a lot from district to district. The group also discussed the legal challenges that come with offering mental health services online like state and federal regulations around student privacy like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Certain video conference platforms like FaceTime and Zoom's free accounts are not technically HIPAA or FERPA compliant. However, Rigney pointed out that officials have recently relaxed those regulations in an effort to prioritize making contact in this moment of instability.
The group also went through some best practices for tele-mental health like having emergency contact numbers in place before getting started with a student.
"If I had a student who disclosed that they were suicidal, they could decide to turn the video feed off," Rigney explained as a potential worst-case scenario. "What do I do then? So my concern at that point is: I’m going to call the emergency contact. If I can’t get through to that person, then I’m going to have to call the police to do a wellness check."
She added that this type of quick escalation is much less common in person. When counselors are face to face with a student, their calm energy often helps to de-escalate a situation. The concern is those techniques may not translate as effectively in the virtual world.
School leaders like Natick Public Schools superintendent Anna Nolin also worry that the shutdown will make it harder to identify students who might newly be in need of mental health services. When teachers are in the classroom, they’re trained to identify trauma.
"We’re going to try to recreate that system as best we can in this difficult closure period," said Nolin. "So we’re asking all of our teachers and counselors to conduct live video classroom chats with our students to check in on the social and emotional well being."
Nolin is hoping that a free phone service that connects kids to mental health providers in town will also help them weather this extended break from school. Other school systems are working on resource sharing right now. Several mental health leaders at districts like Methuen and Arlington have combined their resources to create a website where parents and school staff can find more guidance for supporting student mental health.
Editor’s Note: After publication, one of the interview subjects asked to clarify what she told WBUR about a possible worst-case scenario of trying to help a suicidal student. Anyone feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis can all the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or 800-273-8255.
This article was originally published on March 24, 2020.