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Flanagan Counselor Education Clinic answers the increased need for mental health services during the pandemic

  • A screenshot from a Zoom call showing four people in individual boxes on the screen
    Providing mental health support during the pandemic:  Clinic Faculty Director Rebecca Sheffield (top left) meets via Zoom with student directors of the Flanagan Counselor Education Clinic (clockwise from top right) Leila Warraich, Philippa Chin and Kaitlin Hinchey.  Courtesy screenshot
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With its new name comes new changes for the Flanagan Counselor Education Clinic. Thanks to a $2 million gift in 2020 from Professor Emeritus S. Stuart Flanagan, William & Mary’s expanded counseling training clinic now encompasses the New Horizons Family Counseling Center, the New Leaf Clinic, and a new service called the Telehealth Team, making services more accessible than ever.

The clinic’s updated structure is just one of the ways the clinic is becoming a one-stop shop for mental health services in the community. While New Horizons works with families, New Leaf works with undergraduate William & Mary students and clients from the greater Williamsburg community who have been referred for substance use issues. The telehealth team helps the clinics reach more people beyond the local area to serve the entire state of Virginia. Now that these projects are working together under the umbrella of the Flanagan Counselor Education Clinic, they have found ways to make the transition to telehealth more seamless and reach out to the community to spread word about their services.

“As an all-encompassing counselor education clinic, we are now working side-by-side to ensure successful operation of a well-established mental health service that greatly benefits the school and local community,” Nathaniel Mason, student co-director of New Leaf says.

The partnership between the projects has helped students and supervisors in both New Horizons and New Leaf support each other through their own pandemic experiences, problem-solve obstacles that come up in telehealth counseling and share administrative tasks, allowing student interns to have more behind-the-scenes experience that will help them in their professional development.

The clinics had to adjust quickly to internal and external demands when schools and offices closed due to COVID-19 and they were no longer able to see clients in-person. At that time, New Horizons and New Leaf relied on their client base from school referrals, but as students were no longer in school it became more difficult to reach out to families and students who needed mental health services. In an effort to increase accessibility, the clinics began marketing their services more broadly and changed the traditional referral system to one that encouraged self-referrals.

Not only is it easier for clients to access services, but the clinic is offering new programs tailored to people who need more support because of newfound challenges brought on by the pandemic. One of the programs is a teacher support program, which aims to serve about 50-60 teachers from Williamsburg and surrounding counties through telehealth sessions.

When Rebecca Sheffield, faculty clinic director, approached Kaitlin Hinchey and Leila Warraich, the student directors of the New Horizons team, about supporting teachers and school staff during this time, they knew they had to take action, Warraich says.

“We had been hearing from school counselors and also from the families that we serve about how overwhelmed they saw the teachers and school staff in our community. Because we have partnerships with the local school districts, we could very much see the need.”

Sheffield recognized the need for teachers to get extra support because their work was changing in a big way.

“They also have families and homes,” Sheffield says. “What better stream of service than to provide help to those who are supporting us and our families during this time?”

The Youth and Family Program is another project that New Horizons has been offering for several years with support from the Williamsburg Health Foundation, but since the transition to telehealth counseling, the program has changed to specifically help families with pandemic-related struggles.

Because many families were spending more time with each other than ever before, there were new communication problems that were fracturing families. When adapting the curriculum, Sheffield and her team asked themselves what stressors the pandemic brought on and decided to make the group for parents, where they provided strategies on how to communicate with their kids about homework and coping with isolation.

“We have had families from all walks of life in these group sessions, people who never would have talked to one another in another context, which creates such a strong sense of community,” Sheffield says about the advantages of the online support group.

Although many of the changes the clinic has made were an unforeseen response to the pandemic, the clinic wants some of those changes to stick around even after the pandemic. The community partnerships have allowed the clinic to keep its finger on the pulse of the community and its needs while the expanded services allow more William & Mary counseling students to gain experience working with diverse clients based on their interests.

“New Horizons has been established for a long time and the leadership has great ideas about community outreach,” Mason says. “New Leaf, on the other hand, focuses more on individual counseling, which provides New Horizons an opportunity to possibly refer clients requiring individual clinical attention. Talk about a comprehensive and holistic way of helping clients!”

As a co-director for the last two years, Warraich was involved in the clinic transition since the start of the pandemic. Not even a year since the clinic began making all of its changes, she notes the feat that it was for the clinic, which is entirely student-run, to adapt services to families in a much-needed time as well as continuing to serve clients while student interns were also adjusting to the new normal.

“We really made the jump to reaching families in creative ways to let them know we were here for them,” Warriach says. “But we also added and adapted services, including providing telehealth family counseling, groups targeted to parenting in the pandemic, and now our new service in supporting teachers and school staff. As an emerging counselor educator, this has also been an incredible learning opportunity for me making me a stronger clinician and educator."

The clinic is currently open and accepting referrals for any families, teachers or school staff who need extra support. Reach out at NHFCC@wm.edu.