A multi-country study, led by Monash University, has found the need to develop appropriate policies, school processes and skills to deliver effective psychology services in a safe and ethical way during the pandemic.
The study, which involved 938 participants from the United States of America (USA), Germany, Canada, and Australia, found that significantly more psychologists in Germany and Australia provided telehealth and telecounselling services than those in the USA and Canada. Psychologists in Germany relied significantly more on hardcopy material to support students than psychologists in other countries.
Restrictions and school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant many students globally could not physically connect with their peers during a stage of their life where peer connections are of utmost importance. Students were also exposed to greater family stress related to, for example, parental unemployment or loss of family income and loss of their own social support.
In Australia, Victorian and New South Wales students’ access to school-based mental health support is continuing to be disrupted by COVID restrictions at a time when they need it the most.
Project researcher and Lecturer in the School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Dianne Summers, says the multi-country comparison approach to this study has the potential to highlight how school psychology services pivoted during this time and identify learnings from each region.
“As a result of school closures, there was a broad shift from in-person psychology and learning assessments and consultations to virtual counselling, and using online resources to support students, their parents and teachers,” Ms Summers said.
“Despite the majority of participants reporting challenges associated with being unable to consult in-person, regions like Germany and Australia were quick to employ virtual counselling sessions and as a result were able to continue to provide individual student mental health support to assist their students compared to USA or Canada.
“From our findings we know it’s critical that psychologists working in schools have the appropriate technological skills and resources to support students, parents, and school staff during periods of school closure. The initial challenges associated with getting telehealth services up and running led to a delay in support services being available at a time when students and their parents needed it the most.”
Since the study was conducted, many of the barriers to accessing telehealth services, such as security, confidentiality and usability, have been addressed and subsequently many regions have implemented national guidelines and policies relating to school psychology.
“Initially there was a lot of legwork to get telehealth up and running with our primary and secondary school students. We found that once we did, many senior students engaged really well, though keeping primary aged students engaged online was a unique challenge,” said Alison Behrend, Psychologist at Woodleigh School, Langwarrin South.
“We received a large number of new referrals for students who had perhaps been unwilling to meet face-to-face but were more comfortable with the telehealth platform, who we will be able to continue to support when we are back on site. We also noticed a shift in how we supported the students more generally, with a lot more focus on parent and teacher consultations, which helped them to support the young person.”
From the findings, the researchers expect that many of the innovations and changes to psychology practice implemented during the pandemic will remain in place but become more efficient and effective.
These innovations will increase access to school-based psychological services into the future, particularly in remote areas and for families where there may have been additional barriers to access support.
By continuing to upskill not only school psychologists but also teachers and school leaders, it’s anticipated that as a collective schools will have the necessary platforms and tools to better meet the needs of their students and their wider school community.