Oct. 29, 2020

Online group therapy program helps students manage anxiety and emotions during COVID-19

Researchers and Student Wellness develop a virtual psychotherapy intervention to support students experiencing emotional distress
Melissa Rowbotham - Dan Devoe Bottom Right: David Lindenbach - Gina Dimitropoulos
Melissa Rowbotham - Dan Devoe Bottom Right: David Lindenbach - Gina Dimitropoulos

With the restrictions and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students experience added stress on top of already high levels of academic anxiety. A team of researchers at the University of Calgary is collaborating with Student Wellness Services to help these students learn tools and strategies to manage their emotional distress.

One of the strongest protective factors in mental wellness is connection to community and supportive networks, says Debbie Bruckner, senior director of student wellness. To meet these needs, a research team that includes social workers and psychiatrists is adapting a well-known cognitive behavioural therapy into a condensed virtual version specifically for young adults experiencing emotional distress related to the global pandemic.

  • Photo above, clockwise from top left: Melissa Rowbotham, Dan Devoe, Gina Dimitropoulos, David Lindenbach

“We’ve identified a group of people who are suffering greatly and now we’re able to reach them in the comfort of their homes and provide therapy without exposing them to the risk of meeting in person, but still give them access to each other,” says Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work. She's leading the project with Dr. Dan Devoe, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), alongside other investigators from the Mathison Centre and the HBI.

    Gina Dimitropoulos

    Gina Dimitropoulos, Faculty of Social Work

    Kloie Picot, One Shot More

    Transdiagnostic approach to therapy allows for treating a range of issues at once

    The Unified Protocol (UP) is a cognitive behavioural therapy program that moves away from disease-specific or diagnosis-specific treatment to use a technique that targets the unifying features of mental illnesses, mainly the distress associated with intense emotions. This method allows facilitators to work with a large volume of people experiencing a range of emotions and provide them with a toolkit that lasts beyond the sessions so they can continue to regulate themselves and learn to ease those stresses. The program usually ranges from 16 to 25 in-person sessions.

    To help as many students as possible, the team has condensed the UP program into five online sessions called Managing Anxiety and Intense Emotions.

    In the 90-minute video sessions, facilitators lead a group of eight to 12 participants through a combination of educational videos, discussion, and skill-building with tools like acronyms and mnemonic devices to learn how to label their emotions and identify common thinking traps.

    The goal, researchers say, is for the participants to develop non-judgmental attitudes toward themselves and to learn how to be less critical and more empathetic of their emotions.

    Group programming an important aspect of mental health care

    “Research suggests group programming is an effective means for delivering mental health services, helping to normalize students’ experiences, build social connections, and provide a context for practicing new skills,” says Jennifer Thannhauser, associate director of counselling in Student Wellness.

    “Part of the effectiveness of a group approach is that the solutions come from the participants — the facilitators are just helping them along to make those discoveries,” says research team member and program facilitator Dr. David Lindenbach, PhD, a research associate at the Mathison Centre. “The really impactful things come from the participants generating ideas and hearing things from their peers that help them resolve their problems.”

    Devoe sees “the opportunity to connect with other people who understand what you’re going through and know that you’re not alone” as an integral part of the program. Student participants agree.

    “I was really struggling with readjusting to online school this fall and was feeling very overwhelmed and unable to cope with all of the expectations of school, work, and the pandemic. I decided to join the Brief UP sessions and it's made a big difference,” says third-year psychology student Kaitlyn Guenther, a participant in the condensed UP program.

    Getting the chance to talk with other students in a facilitated space made me feel less alone and really supported. I also feel like I have left the program with a big toolbox of mental health strategies so that I am better able to cope. The program also showed me how to connect all of the strategies that I learned and recognize situations where the strategies can be very useful.”

    The program is free and open to any UCalgary students under the age of 30 who live in Alberta.

    Any students interested in participating in the Managing Anxiety and Intense Emotions sessions can sign up online through Student Wellness. New sessions are scheduled to begin Nov. 18, Jan. 12 and Jan. 13. For more information, email up@ucalgary.ca.

    This project is funded through the Giving Day Fund from the Office of the Vice President (Research).

    The research team includes:

    • Gina Dimitropoulos, associate professor, Faculty of Social Work and departments of Psychiatry and Paediatrics, Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and a member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Education and Research, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health, a youth social worker and expert on implementing the UP in community settings
    • Jill Ehrenreich-May, professor, UMiami, a clinical psychologist and a founder of the UP
    • Paul Arnold, MD, PhD, professor, departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics, CSM, and member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Education & Research, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute
    • Scott Patten, MD, PhD, professor, Department of Psychiatry and Community Health Sciences, CSM and member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Education and Research, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health
    • Dan Devoe, postdoctoral scholar at the CSM’s Hotckiss Brain Institute and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and  Education
    • David Lindenbach, research associate at the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute’s Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education
    • Debbie Bruckner, senior director Student Wellness
    • Jennifer Thannhauser, associate director of counselling, Student Wellness
    • Melissa Rowbotham and Emily Schorr, research co-ordinators