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For colleges and universities, the idea that student health goes beyond the merely physical is nothing new. What is new is the increasing demand for mental health support on campus. The number of students seeking counseling appointments has ballooned by 30% on average for the past few years — that’s five times average enrollment growth.*
It’s no wonder college administrators are looking for ways to expand mental health services. A look at the statistics is harrowing:
- 66% of students who leave during the academic semester left for mental health reasons.*
- 25% of college students were diagnosed with or treated for mental health issues.*
- 20% of college students reported suicidal thoughts and 20% reported self-injury.*
- 9% of college students who reported suicidal thought actually attempted suicide.*
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. today — and it’s one of just three causes on the rise.** Addressing emotional issues early is one way colleges can combat mental health problems before they progress to self harm.
Rising demand for mental health isn’t all bad news
Today’s college students come from high schools that have implemented Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula in an effort to build emotional intelligence. They have grown up with smartphones that enable easy connection with parents and other supporters. They’ve also grown up with social media that can negatively impact self-esteem.
At the same time, more families are knowledgeable about the signs of emotional distress, and willing to take action when they see them. While it may be more difficult for today’s college students to face the rigors of living on their own at college, they are also more likely than ever to:
- Recognize when they need mental health support, and
- Seek counseling or other support for themselves.
As Mark Lewis, Dean of Students at Abilene Christian University (ACU) notes, “Anxiety and depression have always been with us, but the stigma is fading. Students need more support, but they’re more willing to reach out for support.” Seeking help at the right time can lead to better mental health outcomes and better overall student health.
The right tool for the mental health job
Healthier students should be great news for administrators, as healthy students are the most engaged and likely to graduate — the trick is to find effective ways to deliver the mental health care these students clearly need. Though existing campus counselors may be overbooked, hiring may be cost-prohibitive. Resources to house and equip them may be scarce.
Administrators hesitate to turn to mental health resources in surrounding communities. Busy students may not only be short on time and money, they also may not have access to transportation, or be able to see a counselor when the counseling center is open. College and universities may also question whether external counselors will provide care consistent with the institution’s standards.
ACU considered off-campus referrals, but decided against it. “Our learnings have been that when you refer students off-campus, they just don’t go,” says Lewis. “Then you have a student who isn’t getting the services they need to stay successful at school.”
Students also keep odd hours. As Lewis notes, “We have excellent counselors at ACU, but there are only so many slots no matter if it’s finals week or not. And if a student can’t come between 8 and 5, they can’t see anyone.” How can universities address student mental-emotional struggles that peak on the spur of the moment, or strike in the dead of night?
Virtual care offers real solutions for student mental health
Higher education institutions have already turned to telehealth to offer round-the-clock medical care to students. Now, some are adding virtual counseling so students can initiate a virtual visit with a licensed medical provider or mental health professional in minutes, any time of the day or night.
The top reasons students seek counseling are anxiety and depression.* Telecounseling can support students in the moment, diagnose severity, and make seamless referrals to on-campus resources. Virtual visits can also bridge gaps, supporting students until in-person resources become available.
Based on the successful launch of offering virtual medical visits, the university is adding virtual mental health services. “When you think about mental health care, the first thing you want is talk to someone trained to help, and the sooner the better,” notes Lewis. “We’re excited about expanding our Wildcat Care telehealth program to connect students with qualified counselors as well.”
Some students may prefer the privacy of telehealth for mental health support. “Stigmas are fading, but it can still be tough for students to make the first move. A call in private may be easier for students hesitant to walk into our counseling office,” Lewis says.
Jan Hall, Ph.D, Director of Curriculum Development and Complex Case Management at TimelyMD, agrees. “Telehealth offers the ease, convenience and privacy of helping students connect to mental health services. TimelyMD helped stabilize students with suicidal ideation and assisted them in connecting with their campus counseling center within 24 hours. We are pleased to serve students in this way.”
Telehealth makes on-campus counselors happy
Mental health support that can be accessed in the moment of need leads to better outcomes for everyone. Just knowing such care is available can make the difference for busy students striving to push their limits academically. Campus counselors can rest easier knowing their students are supported through the night, every night.
One of the most attractive things about virtual mental health is the ability to customize programs to the needs of each university. “We selected our telehealth partner carefully. When our students are in need, they receive care that makes sense to them,” said Lewis.
Care through telehealth can be attuned to follow campus protocols and utilize on-campus resources. Sharing records can create seamless support between virtual and in-person care, as well as between mental and medical health needs. Hall notes, “TimelyMD collaborates with campus counseling center staff in connecting students with campus resources for concerns such as anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug use, eating disorders, relationship issues and sexual violence.”
Student mental health matters to parents, too
Today’s parents are accustomed to using mobile phone technology to stay connected with their children. Knowing that mental health resources are immediately accessible to students via their beloved smartphones can be very comforting for parents. On hearing about telecounseling, one parent recalled how an unexpected mental-emotional challenge hit her during college.
“I was completely focused on sophomore midterms when I got word my grandfather was ill,” she said. Shaken and worried he might be on his deathbed, she went into a spiral of anxiety. “I didn’t feel I could burden my family with my problems at that point. I didn’t want to let them down by failing my midterms, but I just couldn’t focus. I didn’t know what to do.”
Luckily, a senior offered perspective. “I’ll never forget when a friend said, ‘Look: midterms can be made up — if you need to go home to be with your family, go. It’s ok.’ That late-night conversation empowered me to take care of myself. If I had not had an older, wiser friend on-hand at the right moment, a way to get support online would have been a lifeline for me.”
Explore telehealth for mental health
The link between mental health and academic performance is well-known. According to a recent AUCCCD Director Survey, 67% of students reported that counseling services promoted their academic performance, and 65% stated that counseling helped them stay in school.*** What is less well-known is the way universities can cost-effectively reach students in the moment of their mental health need.
Lewis says, “I’d strongly encourage any of my peers to look into telehealth for mental health on campus. Telehealth allows our mental health clinic to never be closed, period. That’s a great thing.” While mental health data is not yet available, the medical telehealth program at ACU saves the university $63,000 in healthcare costs per every 1,000 students per year.****
But the benefits of virtual mental health support for students far outweigh potential savings. “We’ve seen first-hand that a healthier student body makes for a stronger university,” says Lewis. Healthier students attend more classes, achieve better grades, and participate in more extracurricular activities to create a more vibrant campus community.
Hall says, “Most college students want to progress towards vocational, personal and/or spiritual goals. We assist students in developing plans and moving towards goals in positive ways.”
Telecounseling as an included benefit for every student is a great way to demonstrate an institution’s commitment to total student health.
Sources: Center for Collegiate Mental Health*, CDC**, AUCCCD Director Survey***, TimelyMD higher education consumer data****