HEDCO clinic helps parents, families with coronavirus stress

Counseling session screenshot

The stay-at-home order and risk of coronavirus makes this a stressful and perhaps perilous time for most families, especially those with children facing or at risk of experiencing mental health issues.

But a free, relatively new program at the University of Oregon’s College of Education is ready and able to help them get the help they need even during this time of social distancing.

Family Check-up Online, offered through the HEDCO Clinic and Child and Family Center, allows counselors to work with parents, children and teens via video conferencing or a phone call in order to help provide the support they need. It fills a critical gap that developed when social distancing guidelines prevented families from meeting with therapists in person.

“Families are reaching out and grateful for any services they can get right now,” said Beth Stormshak, a professor in the College of Education, a Philip H. Knight Chair and head of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services. “To have that in-person delivery gone for these families — it’s not just our clinic, it’s all of those in the community — it’s a hard time. A lot of parents are relying on us for support to keep things on track, so we’re providing that now as a telehealth model.”

The clinic wants to broadcast its ability to take on additional families who might now need help. The service is available statewide, and it might be particularly useful for families in rural areas that have fewer therapy services available.

“Being able to provide an online resource like this where parents can talk with a therapist remotely really does serve a big population in the state of Oregon,” Stormshak said.

For children between 2 and 17 years old, the evidence-based program addresses common parenting and childhood behavioral and emotional problems. After signing up, families speak remotely with a counselor and then fill out an online assessment about their needs and strengths.

Therapists, parents and school-age children and teens then meet online or talk on the phone about what they hope to accomplish and develop a plan to reach those goals. Therapists provide customized feedback to each family’s concerns and reconnect weekly for updates and additional interventions.

Challenges the counselors typically address include depression, anxiety, school failure, problem behavior, issues with social skills or with peers, conflict with parents and coping skills.

“The common issues parents are dealing with right now have to do with setting up consistent family routines, keeping kids on track with school, and helping everybody cope with the current situation,” Stormshak said. “Some parents find that talking with their children about what is going on right now is challenging and requires good listening skills and strong family communication.  Our counselors can help parents develop those skills with their children.”

Stormshak said the clinic is providing guidance for parents on how to work with their kids around things that they may not often handle. That includes helping with schoolwork and structuring time for homework during the day, as well as building in family time and relaxation while maintaining social distancing.  

The roots of the Family Check-Up program at the UO reach back more than 25 years. The Family Check-Up is an evidenced-based program developed at the UO and shown to reduce problem behavior and support child and family adjustment from early childhood through adolescence. Research on the Family Check-Up has been funded across many different clinical trials at the UO, including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education.

The Prevention Science Institute at the University of Oregon houses this research and supports training on the Family Check-Up through federal funding and private philanthropy. A five-year, $3.5 million grant in 2015 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an institute within the National Institutes of Health, allowed Stormshak and John Seeley, both professors in the College of Education, to develop a virtual program that could be used by parents. The result is being put to use today in schools and in the clinic.

“Our goal at end of the grant was to disseminate this to communities in Oregon, and those communities were schools,” Stormshak said. “Since schools are closed right now, they’re not able to use the program effectively at this time. But we are able to shift gears and implement this in our clinics instead.”

Therapists at the Child and Family Center are advanced doctoral students in school and counseling psychology. The clinic operates year-round, including summers.

Stormshak said that with so many clinics having to limit services due to COVID-19, it’s important to provide families with an alternative that can support them during this stressful time.

“Some families are experiencing the most stress that they’ve ever experienced in their lives,” Stormshak said. “We have really high levels of unemployment, people dealing with issues around food insecurity and rent, and on top of that trying to parent and help their kids at school. We’re asking some families to do a lot right now, and having some support for people will help reduce child mental health problems later as well as support parents during this difficult time.”

To contact the center or schedule an appointment, call the clinic at 541-346-4910.

—By Jim Murez, University Communications