MATRC Helps Online School-Based Counseling Business Expand Services
During the last year, we’ve all heard about how brick-and-mortar schools have had to quickly pivot in order to move coursework and instruction to an online platform as a result of COVID-19. However, many institutions were founded on an online-only platform years before the global pandemic began. For example, Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), a cyber school within the public school system of Pennsylvania, opened its virtual doors as early as the year 2003.
Since CCA operates as part of a traditional school system, it needed to provide the same types of services to its special education students as its brick-and-mortar counterparts, including mental health related services. Brittany Azzolina, LPC, BC-TMH, founded her business, Virtual Counselor, in 2013 to meet that need and has since become a specialist in school-based telehealth.
An Integral Part of IEP
Legally, each public school child who requires special education must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is created by a team including parents, teachers and other professionals affiliated with the school who know that particular student.
“From the very first school, I have been an integral extension of the IEP process for my students,” Azzolina said. “In addition to traditional outpatient therapy, we offer online individual, family, and group therapy services for students that may span years. Our specialized counseling team provides consultation to our partnering schools and helps parents implement effective strategies to support their special education students. We participate in IEP planning meetings and create individualized mental health goals to decrease barriers to academic success. .”
MATRC Supports Expansion of Services
Soon after Azzolina began her business, she reached out to the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center (MATRC) for support and assistance. MATRC provides resources, training and consultation for organizations establishing and growing telehealth programs and systems.
“MATRC has been part of the foundation of my business,” Azzolina said. “I’ve been able to tap into their resources throughout the last eight years and at every stage of my growth. The resources and their responsiveness have been outstanding. Through their assistance, I’ve grown from one client school to serving a dozen schools with a total of 40,000 online counseling sessions pre-pandemic.”
Azzolina has expanded her services to not only reach K-12 students but also created College Telehealth, to partner with colleges nationwide and young adults looking for telehealth counseling services. Due to the rapidly changing licensing regulations as a result of COVID-19, Azzolina has hired a network clinicians around the country to provide telehealth services in over 30 states.
In addition, Azzolina participated in the initial beta-testing of the Board-Certified Telemental Health Provider program, which strives to certify providers and provide training for those delivering mental health services virtually.
“25 years ago, I began my career in adventure-based therapy, leading youth wilderness trips around the country and loved that discovery and exploration,” Azzolina said. “Now, I think my virtual companies are doing something very similar–encouraging students and young adults to figure out what they are passionate about and discovering who they are by using virtual technology that has no bounds. We encourage our students to Explore From Within.”
Reaping Serendipitous Benefits
Many special education students that Azzolina and her colleagues serve suffer from anxiety, depression or isolation. “Due to the severity of their symptoms, they may not feel comfortable getting on a screen right away,” she explained. “We work with them where they are at, often that’s with a phone call. Slowly, they may be willing to get on their computer with team members, and eventually, they might be willing to turn on their camera. We help them evolve to the next step at their pace, often through exposure therapy adapted to the virtual environment.”
One of the very first students Azzolina worked with was a middle-school boy. “I worked with him for years, providing both individual and family counseling services,” Azzolina said. “His family embraced the services, trusted me, and invited me into their lives. I’ve maintained that relationship over the years, even after the student finished school.
“That young adult, now college-aged, became a leader at an outdoor leadership program focused on character development,” she continued. “Little did I know as I drove my own son’s to camp this year that that former student of mine would now be my children’s camp counselor. It was both an honor and powerful moment to realize telehealth was the catalyst to the bond and reciprocal growth our families are experiencing.”