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Colleges expand mental health services for students

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased need for mental health services in colleges as students grapple with the social and economic consequences of closed campuses, online learning, and in some cases, loss of life. illness or death of their loved ones. Now, as most institutions return to more normal in-person operations, they are relying on telehealth mental health services to provide assistance to students, whether on campus or off campus.

“We have seen that many schools are focusing more on their services and making sure that they offer a health and wellness offering such as telehealth and teletherapy,” said Seli Fakorzi, director of health operations. mental health at TimelyMD, a telehealth provider. “Campuses are now wondering if they are offering enough services that offer virtual and in-person support. “

In June 2020, TimelyMD found that 85% of students reported experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic and uncertainty about continuing with their education. Another survey from the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement found that 53% of freshmen reported a substantial increase in mental and emotional exhaustion. Due to the increased need for services, institutions are strengthening their mental health resources for the fall semester. And given the wide range of student needs and living and learning situations – on-campus, off-campus, in-person, remote, hybrid – many institutions are using technology in innovative ways to deliver advisory services. and support to all who seek them.

T. Anne Hawkins, director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of West Virginia, said she and her team recognize they need to do something “outside the box” for the next semester. fall. So they established a one-year partnership with Talkspace, an online platform and app that connects students with licensed therapists. Students can send text, audio, photo and video messages to their therapist anytime, as well as schedule live video sessions. Hawkins said the partnership is especially helpful for out-of-state students because of telehealth licensing laws. As of the semester started on Aug. 18, 178 students have signed up for the app, Hawkins said.

“We know some of our students haven’t returned and are out of state or elsewhere in the state navigating virtual learning,” Hawkins said. “Our goal is really to increase mental health services to support students and help them manage the events of the pandemic and get back to in-person learning.”

She added that the university has a “large menu” of mental health resources, both in person and virtually. In addition to seeing counselors on campus during office hours, WVU students have 24/7 access to the Crisis Text Line, a mental health service where they can text a trained counselor. live that responds to messages privately. Students can text the counselor, who asks questions, empathizes, and actively listens. ProtoCall is another mental health service that students can call for crisis intervention and stabilization, as well as for referrals for network providers and other resources.

Such programs hold great promise in helping students. Studies have shown that teletherapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, as one researcher said. The New York Times. Even before the pandemic, researchers from the Milbank Memorial Fund, a nonprofit health foundation, drew similar conclusions, also pointing out that behavioral telehealth can cost less than in-person visits and affect more people as well.

“What we’ve seen is that telehealth is essentially as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy – and retention rates are higher,” said David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Feinberg. School of Medicine at Northwestern University. the American Psychological Association.

At Belmont University in Tennessee, Katherine Cornelius, director of counseling services, said students were torn between the need for in-person or virtual mental health services. In the first two weeks of classes, the institution saw a 60% increase in the number of counseling appointments compared to 2019, Cornelius said. His office has worked to increase access to mental health for non-traditional students, including graduate students or those in full-time employment.

“Over the past few years, we’ve really focused on improving access to care and reducing barriers,” Cornelius said. “Telehealth has been a huge benefit for this. Students don’t have to go to campus, and we’ve seen that a lot of students are really concerned about their health, so they really feel more comfortable doing virtual tours.

Before the onset of the pandemic, Belmont purchased Therapy Assistance Online, a virtual self-help platform that offers self-guided tools, educational and interactive modules, reviews, and progress tracking tools, to which all students , teachers and Belmont staff have free access. This fall, the school also purchased TimelyCare from Timely MD, which provides free virtual physical and mental health support and is available 24/7 to all students at Belmont, Cornelius said.

“Student life doesn’t end at 4:30 pm when our office is closed. A lot of them are just getting started, ”Cornelius said. “So TimelyCare kind of fills the gap after working hours. “

At the University of Virginia, Nicole Ruzek, director of counseling and psychology services, said students were grappling with issues beyond the pandemic. Many have felt the impact of racial injustice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hands of police, as well as the anxiety over the climate crisis and the 2020 presidential election. which divides. She said students seemed to like in-person and virtual counseling, so her department offers hybrid options. In 2018, the university contracted with SilverCloud, a virtual mental health platform that focuses on digital therapy, to give students access to informational videos, mental health quizzes and interactive tools.

In addition, the university signed a contract with TimelyMD “to continue to meet this demand for service,” said Ruzek. The contract allows students to have 24/7 virtual access to individual counseling, psychiatric services and on-demand support with a healthcare professional.

“Some students really appreciate having telehealth as an option. It can be much more convenient if they don’t want to travel, ”said Ruzek. “Having that option to be able to engage with a mental health provider, through a remote service, I think it’s really helpful. Then there are other students who really want to be seen in person.

Cooper Union, a private college in New York where the majority of students commute, has had to develop mental health resources that meet with students while they are on campus and when they are at home, said Chris Chamberlin , dean of students.

“We are small and we are trying to capitalize on our geography and all the resources that are available to us here in New York and in our neighborhood to provide students with significant access to care,” Chamberlin said.

In partnership with TimelyMD, Cooper Union created Cooper Care, an online app and platform that gives students 24/7 access to virtual healthcare providers. Chamberlin said that using Cooper Care with the institution’s own counseling program created “maximum flexibility” for students to meet their needs. He added that students are encouraged during Welcome Week to download and configure the Cooper Care app so that in the event of a crisis, they can immediately access help.

And it’s not difficult to engage students in telehealth resources if campuses standardize their use, said Fakorzi of TimelyMD. 24-hour services like TimelyCare can connect students with help during late hours and early when in-person care is not available in a crisis.

“If the problems boil over at 4 am I think it’s definitely a benefit for campuses to have a backup program to say, ‘Hey, this is also a place you can get help. “” said Fakorzi. “But it also gives the campus the security of knowing the help is there.”

There is always a stigma around helping with mental health, said Cornelius, of Belmont. Some students are concerned about confidentiality, while others come from backgrounds where mental health treatment is not the norm. And there is greater stigma against students struggling with mental health issues other than depression and anxiety, she said, including bipolar disorder and trauma.

Ruzek of the University of Virginia said the shift to more virtual mental health resources has opened up access for students from families or cultural backgrounds who do not typically seek mental health help.

“They don’t even have to come through our doors anymore,” Ruzek said. “They can connect with us electronically and we can put them in touch with the right resource without their parents knowing, if they don’t want their families to know, or even without their peers knowing if they are. are in a private location. “

Chamberlin agreed, saying the switch to telehealth “created access in a way that did not exist before”, when many mental health resources were confined to a certain time and place on campus. .

“More and more students are engaging in our virtual programming, whether it’s seeing a therapist remotely or attending a workshop they normally couldn’t do,” Chamberlin said. “I also think we’ve continued to do a number of things virtually that we could have done in person, because we also know that people learn differently and engage differently.”


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.

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