January 30, 2014

EDITORIAL: Expanding Mental Health Counseling Online

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Following the initiative of other universities such as the University of Florida, Cornell announced that this month it will begin to provide online mental health counseling, in the form of instant messaging. In a high-pressure college environment, in which students may feel overwhelmed, isolated or even depressed, it is important that students who may feel uncomfortable talking to a counselor — in person or on the phone — can still seek help. Though Gannett’s Counseling and Psychological Services already provides many resources to the Cornell community, this specific program is important because it targets a type of person who may not otherwise seek out Gannett resources. We are glad the University’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service, a program under CAPS, is taking another step to offer a greater variety of counseling options.

One benefit of this program is that instant messaging provides a level of privacy unmatched by the current resources available. According to Micaela Corazón — director of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services’ 24-hour telephone counseling service, Crisisline — students may be more open over chat than on the phone or in person because of the feeling of anonymity. Therefore, having counseling available over instant messaging will provide students a more private space to discuss their problems and feelings. Instead of needing to physically go to Gannett or talk over the phone, students can take advantage of the chat to get the help they need from the comfort of their own home.

In addition to making students feel more comfortable about seeking help, this program will also allow quick, convenient access to mental health services whenever and wherever someone needs it. Rather than waiting for an appointment, a student can just use his or her computer to talk to a counselor right away. Since students already have very busy schedules, avoiding additional appointments may help relieve stress.

However, we recognize that instant message counseling is not without its flaws. From behind a computer screen, a counselor cannot pick up on non-verbal or physical cues. Additionally, the hours that online counseling is offered could be expanded to help more students. Offering this service only three hours a day during the workweek — from 6 to 9 p.m. — may not be accessible enough for students seeking these resources. We hope that if this program sees initial success, Gannett will expand the hours of availability until later at night, when many students feel the most stress. Though we understand if this online service cannot be extended to a 24-hour program, we believe that by eventually extending this service later into the night and weekends, it would be more beneficial to students seeking immediate counseling.

CAPS already strives to offer a range of counseling services to the Cornell community, including EARS, 24-hour phone consultation and group counseling. Still, we believe that by adding online counseling services, CAPS may be able to reach even more students. While it is not yet clear whether online counseling will be an effective substitute for in-person counseling, we applaud the University for continuing to expand its mental health services.