During crisis, UNLV clinic offers free virtual mental health care

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Courtesy / UNLV Photo Services, Lonnie Timmons III

Director Michelle Paul at The Practice — a community mental health training clinic — conducts a Zoom training meeting, March 31, 2020. They have been providing telemental health services since 2012 to remote areas of Nevada. In response to the coronavirus, they beefed up their telemental program to ensure continuity of psychological services as social distancing and remote working became a necessity.

Wed, Apr 15, 2020 (2 a.m.)

By the time the spread of COVID-19 closed much of Nevada, The Practice Mental Health Clinic at UNLV had already been working on a plan to provide free, accessible mental health care for those who need it during the crisis. 

Staff were prepared for the quick transition, as the clinic itself was conceived out of a crisis situation, said psychologist Dr. Michelle Paul, director of the mental health facility. Paul said Nevada, which is already ranked 51st in the nation for mental health services, has always been in desperate need of a community mental health clinic. 

The clinic has been a community resource for affordable mental health care, as well as a teaching and resource tool for the university, since 2012. 

“We are part of the machinery of mental health care in Nevada,” she said. “So we quickly responded.” 

Paul remembers watching the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing in February when officials noted it wasn’t a matter of if there would be a virus outbreak in the United States, but when. The following day, the clinic’s faculty and students began talks on the possibility of working remotely. 

“I did not want to be caught flat-footed,” she said, noting that the pandemic would likely heighten preexisting mental health issues. “Oct. 1 we didn’t see coming. This we could see coming.” 

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV Department of Psychology's Michelle Paul poses for a photo, October 8, 2014 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Paul is the director of The PRACTICE Mental Health Clinic at UNLV.

The clinic’s telehealth policies and HIPAA-compliant technology was quickly bolstered to prepare for the crisis. Clients were notified and internal protocols for staff, students and supervisors were put in place to work remotely. 

By mid-March, the clinic had transitioned entirely to a telemental health care facility. 

Setting the stage for virtual mental health care 

Now that students and mental health counselors must provide services from home, Paul said emphasizing the importance of “setting the stage” and creating a professional environment was crucial. 

“That conveys and communicates that what we’re doing here is important,” she said. “And we’re going to bring an attentive energy to it.” 

Therapists, for example, must dress for the day as they would for a regular day at work. They also must set the backgrounds the clients will see to something that is conducive to a professional environment. 

“It’s being mindful of what is in your office space and what is seen in the background,” Paul said. “And reminding clients to the extent possible of finding a private space where they can focus on themselves and have a therapeutic space with the counselor.”

Therapy sessions from bed, for example, are not recommended, she said. 

From there, counselors are instructed to build a therapeutic relationship with clients.

"We refer to these as common bonds in psychotherapy, which means the sense of someone being present with you, attentive, offering you hope, offering you a space where you feel truly heard and understood, that your goals are clear and the manner in which you’re working toward these goals is mutually understood.” 

For the next three months, the Practice will be offering free virtual mental health care services for those who need it during the pandemic. For more information, visit unlv.edu/thepractice. For information on how to set up an appointment, email [email protected]

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Paul said. “The impact of this (pandemic) is going to be long-lasting and mental health is going to be one of those long-lasting needs. Our training programs are highly valuable, and students under supervision are an amazing resource and can really step up to the task.” 

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