Saint Leo University's students in the Master of Social Work program will provide a listening ear and someone to talk with as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials with Premier Medical Associates in Sumter County, FL, found they were receiving many calls from those who needed help coping during the pandemic and who were suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression. To offer help, Susan Roy, a licensed clinical social worker with PMA, set up the Care Chatline. Roberta Restaino, Saint Leo alumna and an adjunct faculty member and field liaison for the graduate social work program, facilitated the partnership with Premier, along with Khalilah Louis-Caines, social work instructor and director of field education.

Saint Leo students will respond to calls received by the Care Chatline by providing a compassionate and listening ear to community members experiencing anxiety or depression. Fourteen graduate students in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia are participating and received training on April 1.

This approach to providing "chatline" care garnered news media attention when WKMG-TV, Channel 6, ( in Orlando, profiled the program: Reporter Adrianna Iwasinski's story quoted Roy, ""What better way to meet a community need as well as the university need. And what a fabulous opportunity for our social workers because this is going to change our mental health."

Premier hopes to offer more opportunities—both online and on-ground at other locations—for Saint Leo MSW students in the future.

In addition to training received from their Saint Leo social work courses, students received additional training about available resources, commonly utilized hotline numbers, de-escalation skills, communication skills, and ways to manage and document calls received. Roy also is on-site and available to provide support during shifts as well as to provide weekly clinical supervision to students to provide ongoing training and development.

Due to the current public health crisis, this is neither an internship nor a field placement, but a unique way for students to serve members of the community, while developing clinical skills and gaining hours that can count towards their internship, Caines said.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation requirements mandate that students successfully complete an internship in addition to coursework. Undergraduate students must complete 400 hours and graduate students 900 hours. Due to COVID-19 and recent social distancing mandates, many agencies have been unable to allow students to continue with traditional onsite internships. As a result, many universities within Florida and across the nation made the decision to suspend internships indefinitely with students being responsible for making up internship hours at a later time. The undergraduate and graduate social work programs at Saint Leo University recognized the importance of safety for students; however, Saint Leo also recognized an opportunity for students to provide much needed support to the community, Caines said.

"The CSWE recently adjusted accreditation requirements which now allow for remote activities to count toward field internship hours, creating a 'win-win' for students and the community," she said. "Students are able to utilize social work and clinical skills to help meet the needs of the community while earning internship hours to help them meet requirements for graduation."

MSW student Amanda Mullen said she hopes to learn as much as possible through this opportunity. "I hope to polish my current clinical skills and learn more about crisis management," Mullen said.

"The world is a scary place right now that is full of uncertainties and fear," she said. "The economy is taking a huge hit and many people are losing their jobs and are being forced to remain in their homes. Of course, like many jobs, most agencies that employ social workers have gone to telework, which has eliminated many social work interns. When this opportunity was first brought to my attention by Saint Leo University, I was so ecstatic to be part of it. The need is so great right now within the community.  People are required to stay at home to self-quarantine and social distance."

This can be difficult for many as in the past, they may have received daily support from family and friends. "The isolation occurring could cause mental health issues and worsen current mental health diagnoses," said Mullen, who lives in South Carolina. "Even if we cannot be there physically, we can still be there to provide support through this Care Chatline."

This outreach also is helping the Saint Leo graduate students. "The Class of 2020, which is supposed to graduate this year, is going through emotional turmoil trying to complete their clinical hours, projects and so on, since agencies have closed and classes have gone online," MSW student Anuja Khadka said. "I could be on the same boat. However, Care Chatline is an excellent opportunity not only to complete clinical hours, but also to serve the community."

Reflecting on this unique situation in which most people are socially isolating, said Khadka, who lives in Pinellas County, FL. "Telehealth is excellent resource to reach and respond to the ones in need. This is a crisis that we had never faced before.

"Our community needs more social workers and mental health clinicians to stabilize, normalize, and adapt the situation," she continued. "I understand the difference that one person can make in somebody's life. I'm ready to be that 'one.'"

Caines and Restaino, the faculty members leading this effort, said assisting with the Care Chatline provides an opportunity to embody core values of Saint Leo University and the social work profession.

"Facilitating the partnership with Premier Medical and providing our interns with such an important community outreach at the same time when internship hours are so needed was not only my honor, but also exciting and inspiring to see social work in action," Restaino said.

Making sure Saint Leo students can complete their hours during this time is important and faculty members came together to share some advice in an article on The New Social Worker magazine website. Saint Leo social work faculty members offered 19 ideas for "Overworked, Anxious, Yet Determined Field Students and Supervisors."

Assisting the Care Chatline is just one of many creative ways Saint Leo University's social work programs have identified as ways for students to provide vital services to the community during this time. Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work students partnered with other local agencies such as Metropolitan Ministries and Feeding Tampa Bay to assist with food distribution in the Tampa Bay community and surrounding areas; the BSW and MSW students also partnered with One Community Now in Pasco County, FL, to call local families to inform them of available food distribution sites in the area. Additionally, students are working to provide virtual peer support groups to University Campus students experiencing distress as a result of COVID-19 related changes.

Premier Medical Associates Care Chatline is set to go live on Wednesday, April 15. For information, email