TeleHELP: Colleges Offer Students Mental Health Care from a Distance-Getting Them Help with Less Stigma and Easing Pressure on Campus Counseling Offices

By Barger, Theresa Sullivan | University Business, May 2018 | Go to article overview

TeleHELP: Colleges Offer Students Mental Health Care from a Distance-Getting Them Help with Less Stigma and Easing Pressure on Campus Counseling Offices


Barger, Theresa Sullivan, University Business


Today's college students face stress everywhere they turn, from friend and roommate tensions to financial strains and fear of becoming a victim of school violence. Consider these stats:

* Nationwide, more than 8 in 10 college students report feeling overwhelmed, and the average student waits two weeks for a college counseling center appointment, according to a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) study.

* Universities report an increase in the prevalence and severity of students' mental health issues and an increase in the number of students taking psychotropic medications, according to another NAMI report. Overall, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help, citing stigma as the top reason.

Since most higher ed institutions aren't able to hire enough staff to meet their students' mental health needs, some have added teletherapy services, according to a new Higher Education Mental Health Alliance guide. Such services can be delivered through videoconferencing, phone or online messaging.

Teletherapy options are often effective in helping students find their way to counseling assistance--which may continue as teletherapy or transition to in-person help. Here's what campus administrators need to know about virtual behavioral health services and how to implement them.

Potential service quandary solution

Say a student who is depressed faces a four-week waiting list for treatment. "That's the difference between surviving a semester and flunking out and floundering," says Sherry Benton, former director of the University of Florida's student counseling center. "You can affect the entire trajectory of someone's life.

"For me, this was intolerable. We needed to find a way to get more services to more students," adds Benton, who is founder of TAO Connect Inc., which delivers remote behavioral health therapy via college counseling centers.

Options for teletherapy vary widely, but all methods direct students to seek immediate care if they're in crisis or are considering harming themselves or others. The general practice is to offer teletherapy for more mild conditions that respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy. But it can help get students who are in distress immediate in-person therapy because those who avoid their college counseling center may initially only reach out for teletherapy.

Teletherapists may be psychiatrists, psychologists or licensed clinical social workers. Institutions most likely to seek teletherapy services for students are those with few behavioral health clinicians in their communities and schools without on-campus counseling--such as satellite campuses and some community colleges, says Sharon Mitchell, head of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD).

The onset of severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, often strikes when people are in their late teens and early 20s--and it's common for people with these conditions to escalate to the point of crisis before seeking treatment. In emergency rooms, they may well languish while waiting to see a psychiatrist.

As an ER physician, Dr. Dorsha James, co-founder and CEO of telemedicine services provider CampusRx, is passionate about keeping those students out of the ER.

Teletherapy provides an additional level of screening and support to students who may fall through the cracks, James says. When these professionals recognize the signs of a more serious issue, they can refer the student to local resources for greater support.

The face of teletherapy

Campus clinicians generally start with a needs assessment by phone or in person, and then connect students to virtual counseling delivered by staff or an outside provider. On its own, teletherapy is most effective for students who are highly motivated and have less intense behavioral health needs, such as family, roommate and relationship trouble, anxiety and stress, grief, LGBTQ issues, or mild depression. …

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