UCF Counseling Center Offers Virtual Mental Health Services Locally


The Community Counseling and Research Center is a training facility for counseling students in the College of Community Innovation and Education, the anchor college to UCF Downtown. The center has been offering free mental health services to the Orlando community since the 1990s, but this year they expanded their services to include virtual sessions for community members in Parramore located near the downtown campus.

“In our outreach for the center, we have intentionally engaged in the Parramore community given the proximity to UCF Downtown and the social responsibility we felt to provide support to community,” says Richelle Joe, assistant professor of counselor education and coordinator of community engagement for the Center.

“In our outreach for the center, we have intentionally engaged in the Parramore community given the proximity to UCF Downtown and the social responsibility we felt to provide support to community.” — Richelle Joe, assistant professor

While working with the Parramore community before the pandemic, Joe found the need for mental health support was a reoccurring theme in just about every engagement she had with the residents and advocates of the area.

Despite those needs, it can sometimes be difficult to access mental health services, especially for those who can’t easily travel to UCF’s main campus for sessions. “Telehealth is a way to overcome those barriers and reach an underserved community,” Joe says.

Combine the already present mental health needs of the area with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s no wonder the team at the Community Counseling and Research Center decided  now was the time to really focus on unique ways to serve the local community. There has been an increase in anxiety, depressive thoughts and substance-use concerns, says Joe.

“I think what has happened between COVID-19 and our current social and racial climate is that there’s a recognition that people are at a boiling point and are looking for resources,” says Joe. “We don’t want people to suffer. We want them to ask for help when they need it.”

“As this year pivoted, we as a team stepped back to look at innovative ways that we can do what we were doing, to address some of the mental health challenges within the community and also provide better opportunities for our students,” says John Super, lecturer of counselor education and coordinator of clinical services and administration at the Center.

“I think it’s important that we’re giving members of the community access to services they normally wouldn’t receive while in quarantine.” — Dawn-Marie Parker, graduate student

In addition to offering virtual services, the center has partnered with the Parramore Kidz Zone to help bring mental health counseling to the downtown Orlando area.

The organization provides early childhood education, after-school programs, mentoring, tutoring and college access assistance for the Parramore community’s youth. Although Parramore Kidz Zone already offers face-to-face counseling, they wanted to expand their services to include the telehealth option for individuals with restricted transportation or who are uncomfortable meeting in person.

“The community as a whole has been going through a lot of changes and a lot has been done to improve the community,” says Ilham Harriz, the prevention and intervention coordinator for the City of Orlando. “As we continue to progress and stay ahead of the game, it was necessary to think of innovative ideas to reach out to Parramore families and educate them on the importance of mental health and eventually work toward eliminating the stigma. Many families have experienced traumas that never were addressed. Telemental health services will bridge the gap for those who prefer distance counseling and make the services more accessible.”

Each Wednesday afternoon, Parramore Kidz Zone opens its recreational center to be used as a safe space for community members wanting to participate in the telehealth counseling offered by the Community Counseling and Research Center.

“I think it’s important that we’re giving members of the community access to services they normally wouldn’t receive while in quarantine,” says Dawn-Marie Parker, a graduate student in the clinical mental health program. Parker is one of a group of graduate students who lead the virtual sessions with clients. “I already felt that counseling services were headed in the direction of telehealth. In that way, we’re learning valuable skills for the workforce once we graduate.”

The Community Counseling and Research Center plans to continue their telehealth offerings when the pandemic ends and even hope to expand their services to include clients at assisted living centers or elderly communities in Orlando. “We’re building a model that we can replicate in other communities where people don’t have the ability to travel to main campus,” says Super.

The center uses trained and highly supervised graduate students in mental health, school counseling, and marriage and family counseling to provide sessions to clients. This new telehealth plan combines the in-person sessions with the virtual. Students and clients who are comfortable meeting face-to-face can continue to do so at the main campus, following UCF’s guidelines. However, the majority of sessions this semester are being conducted virtually.

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