The Wash

Experts commend Alexandria public schools for new telemental health partnership

“Technology has been a godsend” for students signing-up to receive treatment from Hazel Health.

The Alexandria City Public Schools is implementing a new mental health service to combat problems exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns.

The school district recently signed a partnership with Hazel Health to aid students seeking counseling and therapy.

The action came after troubling trends. Youth depression and attempted suicide rates have increased 29% since 2016, according to city data. Broader statewide and national trends mirrored this pattern of worsening mental health, especially during the pandemic.

Parents of students at the Alexandria City High School at the Minnie Howard campus received an email on November 14 asking for parents to provide advanced consent in case their child may need mental health services in the future.

“Hazel Health is available to support every student’s mental well-being without any out-of-pocket costs for families,” read the email.

In the first month of service, over 100 students had been referred to the program, according to Alexandria City Public Schools Executive Director of Student Support Teams Dr. Victor Martin.

A COVID-19 recovery grant funds the new mental health program, according to Martin. He added that the Hazel Health partnership “did not come at the expense of any staff or programs.”

“I think the school system should be commended for doing it,” Brown said. “It’s a wonderful step.”

The new partnership sat well with Maureen McNulty, a member of the board of the Alexandria PTA counsel and “mother of two Titans.”

Titan flag
Alexandria City High School Titans banner (Cameron Adams/The Wash)

“I’m in favor of it; I think it’s a great idea, honestly,” McNulty said. “It allows kids to get the mental health support they need without leaving school.”

On-campus services minimized interruption to the schedule of students and parents, according to McNulty.

Further, she noted Alexandria continued to be an expensive area to live in and that “there’s a shortage of mental health professionals nationally” in her support of the virtual solution.

While the PTA did not directly consult on the Hazel Health partnership, parents had called for more funding and more programs for student mental health for years, according to McNulty.

“This aligns with what the PTA has been advocating for,” McNulty said.

Telemental health

Before the pandemic, “the technology was available, but we never resorted to it,” Brown said.

The UNLV academic added that telemental health services have allowed care to reach sparsely populated or rural areas.

“It’s changing our boundaries, it’s changing how we do things,” Brown said. “Technology has been a godsend because it makes services available.”

In response to potential concerns from parents that virtual mental health services might be less effective than those delivered in person, Brown cited research from the American Psychological Association showing the delivery mechanisms were “comparable.”

Licensed Psychologist Matthew Hagler, Ph.D., LP, cited a different meta-analysis which concluded videoconference-delivered psychotherapy “was equally effective as in-person treatment in reducing children’s symptoms and functional impairments.”

However, Hagler said virtual mental health care can require specific considerations and treatment modifications.

Miniature monument at George Washington Middle School (Cameron Adams/The Wash)

Some of the considerations for virtual mental health revolve around making sure the patient has a private space, but with parents or caregivers in the house and broadly aware of the care their child receives, according to Hagler.

“Even outside of telehealth, therapy with kids is more effective if you involve parents,” Hagler said.

Hagler agreed that providing mental health services in a known, private room at school with staff available to intervene satisfied the immediate support considerations.

Immersion therapy for patients with social anxiety illustrated an example of modifying treatment for the virtual format. Whereas Hagler might introduce a child to strangers in the office building in person, virtual care required more parental involvement and patient homework.

“Ultimately, good therapy is good therapy and bad therapy is bad therapy,” Hagler said. “Whether in person or telehealth, it’s important that providers are trained in evidence-based therapy.”

Hazel Health failed to provide comment for this story despite requests.

Cameron Adams

Cameron Adams is an emerging journalist covering Alexandria, Virginia for the Wash. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Journalism at American University.

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