Telehealth Transforms the Future of the Fresno Family Counseling Center

How the counseling center has overcome the challenges presented by the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic by performing online counseling services, remaining a priceless asset to the community. 

There were many anxious thoughts floating across the minds of the Fresno Family Counseling Center staff when the COVID-19 shutdown was announced. Countless tearful goodbyes were said in the warm, familiar halls of the center as a deep weight of dread and uncertainty settled over everyone. Their deeply-rooted passion to heal mental health and guide individuals back to a sense of wholeness was temporarily put on hold. 

For nearly three months the counseling center was shut down as it scrambled to convert everything to a digital format, causing a tremendous upheaval for both the staff and the students in the M.S. in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling program

Individuals, children, couples and families in the Central Valley rely on the counseling center for mental health services. In addition to Fresno State graduate students, who use the center as a training facility for highly structured and intensely supervised training to fulfill degree and licensure requirements.

The financial impact to the center was devastating as they were unable to accept online payment transactions during the initial stages of the shutdown. Even before the pandemic, the counseling center was already on a minimal budget due to their tremendously discounted session rates, allowing services to meet the needs of marginalized and underserved populations in the community.

Traditional private practice sessions normally range anywhere from $120-$250 an hour. The median payment that the Fresno Family Counseling Center receives is $20 per session, a figure that drops to $5 per session based on the financial status of the client.

The counseling center impacts a remarkably vast region of clients, stretching as far north as the Oregon border and as far south as the San Diego desert, amounting to 115,000 square miles worth of individuals who access their services from a range of 17 different counties in California. For over 35 years, the counseling center has addressed the mental health needs of countless individuals, making immense strides in the name of progress. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic posed numerous difficulties, the counseling center did not let these obstacles deter them. They adapted to the new environment by resuming sessions via Telehealth, an online counseling service. This new implementation increased their number of clients at a staggering rate. Convenience and accessibility were two main factors which manifested themselves with the advent of Telehealth. 

Dr. Christopher Lucey

Dr. Christopher Lucey, the director of the center who specializes in crisis intervention and a Fresno State professor, addresses some of the more beneficial aspects which have arisen thanks to Telehealth. 

“A positive that can be found in the conversion to Telehealth is that rural communities who have experienced a lack of access to mental health in the past, whether due to transportation issues or other isolation-related barriers, can now have their needs met via the internet,” said Lucey, beaming with pride. 

Telehealth has helped the counseling center broaden its geographic reach, especially in areas where mental health services are nonexistent. It offers a new level of convenience and accessibility, especially for those with busy schedules who find it difficult to set aside time for their mental health. It also provides peace of mind for those who struggle with extreme anxiety and for whom planning a long commute behind the wheel of a car would be detrimental. 

The M.S. in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling program has also found creative ways to acclimatize to the changing times. The State of California has allowed students to meet their licensure requirements for the Board of Behavioral Sciences through Telehealth due to the impact of the pandemic. There has been an increase in the amount of students enrolling in the program with the onset of online learning. Graduates of the program are highly sought after with nearly 100% of graduates finding employment within six months if they are actively looking for a job. The program is among only one of four accredited institutions in California that provide this specific type of training. 

Amber Hernandez

Amber Hernandez, a student in the Marriage, Family and Child Counseling graduate program, who will be graduating at the end of this semester, talks about her experience throughout the online conversion. 

“There were a lot of concerns going around with us students as to how we were going to accumulate our hours, how we we’re going to meet with clients, how COVID-19 was going to affect the quality of the services we we’re providing,” Amber explains, remembering back to the inception of the pandemic. 

“Our previous clinical director, Maira Martinez Hernandez, did an amazing job at facilitating everything for us through the training. Since we weren’t allowed to be at the office, she stayed there and held everything together. Dr. Lucey also played a huge part in making sure that the students were still able to accumulate their hours and access the support they needed.”

Through the counseling program, Hernandez has discovered her love of working with children. After initially entering graduate school, she had planned to focus primarily on Latinx families since she herself is both bilingual and first generation. However, she found an even deeper connection through seeing the level of rapport that can be built with children by observing how open and honest they become when they feel that they can trust someone. 

She describes how when one of her sessions was at an end, her child client was reluctant to leave because he was afraid of hurting her feelings. Hernandez explains how it is precious moments like these that feed her soul. 

“The Fresno Family Counseling Center has been a true blessing to my growth and to my graduate experience. I’ve always heard good things about the center, but now, being able to experience it first-hand and be trained by Dr. Lucey and many of the other wonderful therapists there has brought to life how much of an asset the Fresno Family Counseling Center really is, not only for Fresno State, but for the entire community,” said Hernandez. 

The expansion which the counseling center has undergone from its initial inception until now is tremendous in retrospect. When Lucey took over in 2006, the center was performing a total of 426 sessions a year. That number has now risen to over 45,000 in the last five years. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age, the individuals who attend sessions through the center show significant recorded improvement. Telehealth has only accelerated that improvement, allowing individuals to schedule sessions more frequently and from the comfort of their own home. 

The counseling program recently finished a site-visit with its national accrediting body; Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs and left a favorable testimonial regarding the counseling center:  

“The Fresno Family Counseling Center is a crown jewel not only for the MFCC program, but the department as a whole. From students to the CSU-Fresno’s President, the Fresno Family Counseling Center is seen as an exemplar of a community-based training center providing exceptional clinical services to the Fresno community. The center serves as a valued bridge between the university and the community.” 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a creative writing student in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development)

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