When Children’s Mental Health Goes Online

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many healthcare providers migrated to HIPAA-compliant online platforms in order to continue providing services; mental health professionals did, too. But what about the unique field of childhood mental health?

At Center for Child Counseling, we use Play Therapy, an established modality based in the latest neuroscience, to work with very young children who don’t necessarily have the verbal skills to express their feelings and experiences. Our CEO, Renée Layman, explains it this way: “Play is a child’s language and toys are their words. Play helps children make sense of their world, express their feelings, and heal after traumatic events. Through play, our skilled therapists can help children process loss, grief, and other circumstances that, if left unaddressed, can affect a person’s lifelong mental and physical health.”

Before the pandemic, children’s mental health was already at a crisis point but the need for care and crisis intervention has only escalated as the continued stress of isolation, lack of support, and dwindling resources cripple families. Children are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect than ever before with evident spikes in physical and sexual abuse. And the end of the pandemic is only the start of what is called the “echo pandemic” – the unanticipated ripple effects of this unprecedented year. “The aftershocks are going to be felt in the mental health field for years to come,” says Layman. “We know that as children return to school, we’re going to see an uptick in abuse reporting, as teachers are often at the front lines of noticing the signs.”

We effectively moved all services online in February, but it was a challenge. Some families weren’t comfortable with the new telehealth technology; others had poor or no internet service. It was a big switch from conducting sessions in Play Therapy rooms at the organization’s offices (or providing in-home or school-based services) to trying to engage children over a screen. “We work with children of all ages, from birth to 18,” explains Stephanie De La Cruz, Center for Child Counseling’s Clinical Director, Clinical Services. “With very young children, our traditional, in-person sessions are very hands-on, but the pandemic changed all that. Our therapists found that the families we serve don’t necessarily have the kinds of toys, books, and activities in their homes that we need to aid children in expressing their feelings, learning coping skills, enjoying free play, and most importantly, working through trauma. We had to address that vacuum of tangible tools.”

We're facing this challenge. As an organization, we embarked on a campaign to provide age-specific, developmentally appropriate Home Therapy Play and Tool Kits (along with their telehealth trauma counseling) to effectively guide creative expression and help develop positive child-caregiver interactions. The kits facilitate the effective implementation of evidence-based clinical models such as Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) and Filial Therapy, with the therapist virtually guiding the caregiver before and during sessions with the child.

“Children can’t be expected to sit still and conduct talk therapy as an adult would,” says Layman. “Sessions need to be fun and engaging for them. Our services are more vital now than ever and we have to find ways to provide children with services in an effective, innovative way now that we’re working remotely. These kits provide the connection children need so their therapist can help them grow towards healing.”

To help or learn more, click here.

We'd like to offer a special thank you to the generous individuals and funders who have already supported this effort, including Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County, United Way of Palm Beach County, Town of Palm Beach United Way, Ruth Hartman, Kathy Leone, Julie Fisher Cummings, Frisbie Family Fund of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, Nancy Richter, Constance Leist, Michael Ainslie, Darla Mullenix, and Pamela Dunston.

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