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UVA CAPS Goes Virtual

Mental Health Care for Students During COVID-19
Aug 31, 2020
Sofa sits between to chairs

When the University of Virginia began online classes in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire Department of Student Health and Wellness shifted to virtual services as well. In a matter of weeks, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) had established teletherapy protocols, appointments, and remote group therapy options for students.

Nicole Ruzek, PhD, Director of CAPS and Nicole Fischer, PhD, Assistant Director of Outreach at CAPS, answered some questions about mental health care during the time of COVID-19—and what students can expect from CAPS services this fall:

Q: What kind of changes did CAPS have to make in order to offer teletherapy?
CAPS made a quick transition to offering telehealth starting in March. When the University moved to all online instruction, CAPS shifted to providing all of the same services we normally do in-person through remote formats (phone and video). State licensing laws restricted some of the services we could provide to students living outside of Virginia, though we were still able to follow-up with students and help get them connected in their local communities. Therefore, we continued to serve as many students as possible whether they remained in Charlottesville or returned to their homes elsewhere.

Q: Are virtual mental health services similar to in-person services?
Yes! Virtual services are the same length and structure as in-person services. The only difference is the distance and technology used to communicate. For video sessions, CAPS uses HIPAA-compliant technology that is secure and confidential. Students have found the technology easy to use and said they appreciate having this option.

Q: What is the biggest benefit for students when it comes to teletherapy?
Teletherapy is convenient. It has allowed CAPS to expand access to care to many students who would have otherwise have not been able to stay connected to us.

Q: What kind of services will CAPS be offering this fall?
CAPS will provide the full range of services we typically provide during the academic year, including group therapy, individual psychotherapy, psychiatric services, care management, 24/7 emergency consultation, and outreach. We’re particularly excited about our virtual group programs, and students should check out current groups for more information and how to virtually attend.

Q: What are some common mental health concerns students have been having during COVID-19, and what are some good coping strategies?
We’ve heard from several students that they are struggling with feelings of loneliness and anxiety, as well as having trouble with motivation. Helpful strategies include staying informed regarding what to do to stay healthy, while also limiting unhelpful or excessive media exposure; safely staying connected with friends and loved ones; finding at least one nourishing outlet such as taking long walks, doing yoga, baking, gardening, engaging in artistic activities; and using mindfulness and self-compassion skills to slow down, focus on the present and cultivate an attitude of kindness toward ourselves during this challenging time.

Q: How is CAPS responding to mental health emergencies during this time? When should students, faculty and staff use another resource such as 911?
CAPS is available for emergency consultation regarding student mental health crises 7 days/week, 24 hours/day. During the pandemic, CAPS is providing emergency services primarily by phone.

For urgent non-life-threating situations (e.g., talking about suicide or self-harm, engaging in non-suicidal self-injury, concerning changes in behavior or substance use), students, faculty or staff should call 434-243-5150 to speak to a CAPS on-call clinician. CAPS staff can often address crises over the phone. If in-person assistance is needed, CAPS will coordinate with on-site staff or other supports to make sure the students get the help they need. Students should not walk-in directly to CAPS during the pandemic as appointments are being carefully coordinated to ensure the safety of students and staff during this time. Please call first.

During life-threatening emergencies (e.g., threatening or acting on suicidal thoughts, presenting an immediate danger to others, severely impaired by excessive substance use, physically injured or wounded and needing medical attention) students, faculty and staff should call 911.

Q: While this is a challenging time, what do students find hopeful?
Many students have used this time as an opportunity to deepen relationships or take up a new or old hobby. Some have volunteered or made donations to charitable organizations or social causes. Many continue to find new ways to connect, learn and engage. We have been repeatedly impressed by their creativity, which gives us all hope!


Nicole Ruzek, PhD, has been with Student Health and Wellness since 2012. Nicole has extensive experience working with students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and particularly enjoys helping individuals with romantic relationships, spiritual questions, trauma, mood and anxiety concerns.

Nicole Fischer, PhD, ABPP, has been with Student Health and Wellness since 2015. She applies a social justice framework to supporting students with multicultural and acculturation concerns, developmental trauma and abuse, and group dynamics.