January 28, 2014

Cornell Launches Online Counseling

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This month, Cornell joined universities nationwide in taking some of its counseling services to the Internet, as its Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service program began collaborating with Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service to staff a new instant-messaging counseling service for young adults, according to Micaela Corazón, director of SPCS’s 24-hour telephone counseling service, Crisisline.

EARS director Janet Shortall said a portal to the counseling service will soon be added to the EARS website. Counselors undergo two full-day trainings before using the service, which operates online weekdays from 6 to 9 p.m.

Shortall said students in the past had requested a way to connect with counselors online, and the initiation of SPCS’s new program provides “wonderful synchronicity.”

The online chat offers its own benefits and is different from in-person or telephone counseling in several ways, according to Corazón.

“We’re finding that people are more ready to talk about their suicidal thinking on chat, maybe because they’re thinking that it’s more anonymous,” she said. “About 20 percent of the people we talk to on the phone say they have thoughts of suicide. Over 50 percent of people on the chat say they do.” According to Corazón, by taking their counseling services online, SPCS and EARS can reach a younger group more likely to use technology.

“We can reach out to young people who are really isolated,” Corazón said. “That’s the beauty of it. All kinds of people can feel like they can reach out, feel less alone in the world, and break that isolation.”

Online counseling, however, brings its own difficulties for counselors. According to Shortall, anonymity comes at the cost of body language and speech cues, which EARS and SPCS counselors value highly.

Shortall added that most people who use the service are familiar with technology to communicate, but some may find the lack of visual cues impersonal and discomforting. Shortall said she anticipates the increasingly popular mode of therapy to become one of many ways students can access counseling.

A similar online service, faQ, has been used in the past few years in the LGBT community at Cornell. FaQ allows students to anonymously chat with a mentor about LGBT issues, gender and sexual identities and additional resources, according to faQ’s lead facilitator, Frederico De Paoli ’15.

“Users are given the convenience of contacting us from wherever they may be, allowing them to feel safe by talking to us from a physical place they are comfortable in,” De Paoli said. “This all makes faQ a very unique service in terms of giving the user complete control of beginning, handling, and ending the mentoring session.”

Founded by Andrew Lee ’08 in 2005, the service has seen an increase in users over the last three years, said Angela Lu ’13, former faQ president.

“When faQ as we know it was set up, it was already online because I think they started off with the hope that it would be easily accessible and truly anonymous,” she said.

Online counseling is a growing national trend, according to Eells, and several other universities are also expanding counseling programs to include online components.

“This is absolutely a national trend,” Corazón said. “I want to be able to use current technology to reach out to as many people as possible.” He praised similar projects launched by other universities, such as the one launched by University of Florida in the fall, in which the University created and launched a pilot program for online counseling specifically designed for students suffering from anxiety, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“I think [the University of Florida program] is a great innovation,” Eells said. “Anxiety is probably one of the best areas for brief interventions that mix self-help and information sharing with the process of connecting to counselors. Technology allows us to do that in a way that can be effective.”