Social work students answer the call as frontline telephone crisis workers during pandemic

Indiana 211, a free service that connects Hoosiers with local resources 24/7, had been fielding an average of 20,000 calls a month in early 2020.

IU MSW Direct student Ashley Asante-Doyle works on a laptop while wearing a headsetView print quality image
IU MSW Direct student Ashley Asante-Doyle conducted her practicum at Indiana 211 remotely, using only a laptop and headset to deliver critical health and safety information to Hoosiers during the pandemic. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., that number quickly jumped to 20,000 calls a day from people seeking coronavirus-related information and help with lost wages, evictions, food insecurity and other challenges stemming from the pandemic.

Almost immediately after this unprecedented rise, Indiana University School of Social Work students were on the frontlines. Starting in March 2020, 29 students from the school -- 28 pursuing a master's degree in social work and one pursuing a bachelor's degree -- have worked at Indiana 211 as part of the practicum requirement for their degrees.

"It's easy to forget, but Indiana 211 was a first responder to the pandemic in Indiana, before we even understood the disease or if there was hope for a vaccine," said Erika Galyean, an associate clinical professor for the Master of Social Work program at the IU School of Social Work, who arranged for students to serve at Indiana 211.

"Every time there was a new announcement about changes in local laws or public health practices -- such as social distancing, masking, getting a test, or even whether it was safe to go to work -- the state would direct people to 211," said Galyean, who also provided field instruction to the participating students. "They were getting hundreds upon hundreds of calls from employers and citizens, nearly overnight."

IU's partner on the collaboration is Jaimie Ferren, deputy director of Indiana 211 at the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. She and Galyean knew each other through Galyean's role as a member of the state's Resiliency and Emotional Support Team, a volunteer team that provides mental health support to first responders in crisis and disaster events, including workers at Indiana 211. After an initial conversation, Galyean said it became clear the IU School of Social Work was in a position to help address the sudden shortage in telephone crisis workers needed to serve the huge increase in callers.

The partnership was also beneficial to students, many of whom had abruptly lost their social work field placements due to the pandemic. Such placements are a requirement for degree completion, but thanks to the Indiana 211 partnership, no student who accepted an alternate placement with 211 had to extend their graduation date. Moreover, since the call-center work occurred remotely, MSW students from four IU campuses -- IUPUI, IU Bloomington, IU Northwest and IU South Bend -- as well as students in the MSW Direct online program, were able to participate.

Ashley Asante-DoyleView print quality image
Ashley Asante-Doyle. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

"Indiana 211 crisis calls challenged me daily," said Ashley Asante-Doyle, an MSW Direct student who worked at the service until the end of last year. "Hearing some of the stories broke my heart; I had some disgruntled callers and some emergencies … but overall, the experience was awesome. I decided to pursue a career in social work to help others, and working at Indiana 211 allowed me the opportunity to assist."

In addition to questions about COVID-19 tests and mask wearing, Asante-Doyle said she fielded questions about food insecurity; the federal eviction moratorium; assistance with car payments and monthly utilities; shelter; mental health services; and requests to be placed in a facility to quarantine.

Students working with the call center choose a time to log in between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., with shifts running four hours. Calls start immediately, running back to back. During a typical shift, Ferren said a person could handle about 25 calls.

"Indiana 211 really is vital to the state of Indiana," Asante-Doyle said. "Without it, Hoosier families wouldn't be able to access resources to carry them over or assist during an emergency. It's also a great opportunity for organizations to get their resources into the community."

In addition to the IU School of Social Work, Ferren said Indiana 211 received support from other local nonprofit and government agencies, as well as contact tracing staff from the Indiana Department of Health.

To coordinate during calls, Asante-Doyle would communicate with fellow workers through an online group chat. Indiana 211 also split students between various service lines focused on specific topics. MSW students most commonly worked lines for COVID-19 inquiries, such as clarifications about public restrictions and later vaccine access, as well as a line for rental assistance.

To supplement the students' field experience, Galyean incorporated topics relevant to their Indiana 211 work into the classroom, such as discussions and readings on crisis intervention work, as well as practicing coping skills to combat "compassion fatigue." Students were also asked to identify journal articles on crisis intervention topics and compare the research to their own experiences.

"I loved working with the students from the IU School of Social Work," Ferren said. "They were all eager for new experiences and knowledge, and provided great insight and feedback, which we've been able to incorporate into our work."

Among other things, Galyean said students conducted an employee survey on inclusivity and diversity, which resulted in recommendations to improve training on these topics. Another group conducted a "customer satisfaction survey," following up with people who were helped by the call center.

But Asante-Doyle said that what stood out the most for her was supervisors' willingness to provide constructive feedback, as well as the faculty's willingness to listen to students about their experiences. She also said she and her fellow students stayed in contact outside practicum hours to provide feedback or encouraging words.

Although no IU students are currently answering calls at Indiana 211 during the summer sessions, Galyean said the partnership has been so successful that Indiana 211 will become a permanent practicum site for IU, with MSW students returning for fall practicum placements in August.