Technological Considerations for Training Human Service Professionals in Light of COVID-19: Opportunity for Appropriation

Where there isn’t already an infrastructure for psychosocial services at a distance — say, in the developing world — do practitioners generally have the technological skills or ethical experience to adapt on the fly?

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent declaration of it as a pandemic didn’t leave anything without being impacted. Almost all professionals have devised mechanisms to work accordingly by adhering to the idea of physical distancing. Work from home is the widely used strategy throughout the globe for all possible professions. The case of helping professionals, especially in the field of socio-behavioral sciences, including psychologists, counselors, and social workers, are also not different.

The services of helping professionals, including social workers and psychologists, become crucial. Firstly, the pandemic has significantly impacted the mental health and psychological wellbeing of a large section of society. It is high time for psychosocial services. It is crucial for the people who are in quarantine, isolation wards, and for the family members of the patients who are under treatment. Secondly, these services are as essential as healthcare for a voluminous section of the population who are already availing psychosocial supports and therapeutic services for mental health and behavioral issues, family problems, and the like.

In the instance of COVID-19, the delivery of such services are severely impacted due to the lockdowns and mobility restrictions. On the other hand, the current requirement of psychosocial services for the people affected by COVID-19 is also unmet. The magnitude of psychosocial services existing in the hospitals in many countries, including India, are also not promising. Even if such services are existing, the physical distancing measures restrict such service provisions. However, one promising thing I have witnessed these days was the initiation of psychosocial supports through online platforms. In fact, it is the only option left!

The idea of writing this piece came to my mind when one of my students called me up, asking for guidance on how to conduct a counseling session online. I wondered, is she asking for technical support or to the practical and ethical considerations? The answer was for ‘both.’ She hasn’t had a theoretical background and not undergone any such training either during her master’s program nor during her three years of service as a counselor. I started retrospecting: do we have a component of what is she lacking currently in our curriculum? The answer was, to a great extent, no, in the context of India and many other countries.

The idea of online therapeutic services, counseling, and telephonic supports are quite common in the western world. Ethical guidelines for conducting online mental health services and therapeutic interventions from the West and developed countries are evident in the 2000’s itself.  A 2005 study that reviewed the extensive literature on the online counseling modalities shows that most of the evidence base is from the West. Thus, it is pertinent that undeveloped and developing countries perform poorly in providing such services.

The case of my student who called me for clarification is not an isolated one. There are many such practicing psychologists, counselors, and social workers, especially the novice, who find it difficult to switch to virtual platforms for providing psychosocial services suddenly. At the first look, it may seem like the difficulty is all about adapting the change. However, it is not the case. The problem largely relies on the curriculum and training. Though the integration of technology is largely evident in all the fields of human life, the state of its implementation is very minimal in psychosocial services in the context of India and many other countries.

The socio-economic and health crisis we are witnessing now as a result of COVID-19 was utterly unexpected. But the physical distancing is a reality now globally. Though it is a harder time for almost all individuals in every field, such a crisis provides food for better thoughts. The subsequent result of such a disaster should be better revisions and appropriations. The curriculum and training of human service professionals, especially those involved in the psychosocial services, requires major changes. The theory and practice should have enough components of integration with the technology. Students should be trained with the legal, ethical, technical, and practical considerations of providing psychosocial services through digital platforms.

The technological advancement was a crucial issue that prevents online counseling and psychosocial practices. But as of now, it is not the case entirely. The major problem relies on the curriculum and training. From the Indian perspective, a few professionals in the field of mental health are already practicing online psychosocial services, and many are have to do it due to the situation arisen from COVID-19. But the reality is, most of them have not trained on the technical, ethical, legal, and practical aspects.

It is high time for the academicians and practitioners in the field of social and behavioral science to think of appropriating the curriculum and to equip the young professionals on integrating technology with practice. It is important because online psychosocial interventions are not merely a virtual interface; rather, it has significant importance for the health and wellbeing of the clients. Such training facilitates not only timely interventions through online mediums in the time of pandemic like COVID-19 but also can avoid the interruption of services for the people with issues like autism, depression, family conflicts, child abuse, and other psychosocial problems.

Training human service professionals in practicing psychosocial interventions through online mode has cultural significance for countries like India. Because availing psychotherapeutic services are seen as a stigma and usually tag them as ‘mad’ or ‘abnormal’ and unfit. The online avenues for psychosocial interventions facilitate the clients to access such services easily. Many clients who are undergoing long-term therapy sessions become irregular due to the travel, time, and cost involved in accessing the services. To a great extend, online services are an answer to such issues.

To conclude, the appropriate training of human service professionals in digital platforms can ensure the quality of services to the clients during emergencies like COVID-19 or otherwise. The principal measure for the same is retrospection, revisions, and appropriation of the curriculum and training frameworks with an emphasis on the integration of technology with practice. At the same time, such measures should ultimately result in creating the workforce of human service professionals who are locally sensitive and globally competent.

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Abdul Azeez

Abdul Azeez E P is an assistant professor of social work at Amity Institute of Behavioral and Allied Sciences, Amity University Haryana, Gurugram, India. His research focuses on the psychosocial issues of the disadvantaged populations.

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Dr. Sneha Gupta

A must read for all in this pandemic situation.

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