Speak Now: How Community Colleges Are Using Teletherapy to Transform Student Mental Health Services

While research on teletherapy is still in its early stages, experts agree the service has great potential, especially for community college students, who are often low-income and uninsured or have access to to mental health care. While many schools are still in their first year or two of offering teletherapy, community college administrators interviewed for this story agreed that technology has been a game changer for students.

“For us, it’s a retention effort,” said Emily Stone, Dean of Counseling Programs and Student Success at Diablo Valley Community College in Pleasant Hill, California. aiming at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the research-backed idea that students who are mentally challenged cannot learn, he said: “Our well-being, our mental health, are all critical to a student being able to show up for class, be productive and succeed. ”

For community colleges, a different mental health crisis

Most colleges and universities were already seeing an increase in mental health problems among students before the pandemic made them considerably worse. According to the Healthy Minds Survey Of campuses across the country, by 2021 more than 60% of college students met criteria for at least one mental health problem, with anxiety, depression, and suicidality being the most common.

However, mental health challenges look a little different for the roughly 4.2 million community college students, who make up about a third or more of all college students. According to a 2021 national analysis, community college students ages 18 to 22 had significantly higher prevalence of anxiety and depression than their four-year undergraduate classmates, and at the same time, they were far less likely to seek treatment, especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds.

For community college students, more than a third of which are low income and quarter of which are the first in their families to attend college, finances play a significant role in mental health, not only as a cause of stress but also as a reason to avoid seeking treatment. “Financial stress was a strong predictor of mental health outcomes,” the researchers wrote in the 2021 analysis, “and cost was the most prominent barrier to treatment in the community college sample.”

Related research has shown that uninsured patients with depression and anxiety are less likely to receive mental health care compared to their insured counterparts, suggesting that cost plays a role.

Anecdotally, community college administrators said that worrying about finances is one part of a bigger picture: Community college students often engage in a balancing act that includes working full-time, caring for children and caring for other family members in addition to their studies.

“We have students from all walks of life. Some of them are married. Some have children. They are juggling a lot,” said Maureen Delaney of Germanna Community College in Stafford, Virginia. “For many students, this is their opportunity to try to do better for themselves or their families, and they fight.”

At the same time, community colleges themselves struggle to provide students with mental health services. One in four community colleges do not offer mental health servicesY less than 10% offer psychiatric services to students. Y Enrollment continues to decline nationallythreatening to squeeze the already limited resources of some schools.

The potential of teletherapy to change the game

Teletherapy, with its anytime, anywhere model often paid for by colleges and offered to students at no cost, has the potential to revolutionize mental health support for community college students.

The greatest strength of teletherapy, according to psychotherapistsis its ability to expand access, and early research shows that it has the potential to provide the same results as in-person therapy, especially when performed by a well-trained, licensed therapist.

University students find teletherapy “convenient, accessible, user-friendly, and helpful” primarily due to the increased number and availability of therapists. Campus counseling centers are often open only during regular business hours and they are understaffed. Getting an appointment can take weeks.

“We are there when the counseling office is closed, on holidays, vacations and peak times when there is not enough capacity,” said Michael London, chief executive of Uwill, a web-based teletherapy platform serving more than than 100 colleges and universities. “There is video, telephone, chat or messaging. The student drives the way he wants to be helped.”

Most teletherapy services also offer a crisis line like the “TalkNow” button, which gives students who are having a mental health crisis or even a panic attack someone to talk to in a matter of minutes.

New teletherapy companies are also removing the web of insurance and medical red tape that can get in the way of students who are uninsured or unable to pay hourly rates to uninsured therapists. A recent study It showed that most college students, especially Black, Hispanic, and Asian students, would consider teletherapy if it was free of charge.

Colleges that contract with teletherapy services can choose from a variety of plans for students, but according to representatives of teletherapy services interviewed for this story, many offer a certain number of therapy appointments to students at no cost, eliminating one barrier that may prevent low-income students from seeking mental health care.

Beyond cost and convenience, teletherapy has the potential to break down other stubborn barriers to access, especially for the most vulnerable groups of college students. Students of color and LGBTQ students, for example, often seek out therapists with similar backgrounds, and teletherapy’s vast network of therapists can make it easier than one or two found in the counseling center. in a recent New York Times historyVirginia psychologist Alfiee M. Breland-Noble noted that having this kind of cultural competency “is not how much you know about individual cultures, but rather how you present yourself in any space in a way that allows other people to feel welcome. , feeling heard and feeling understood.”

Teletherapy services also have great potential for students in rural areas, where mental health care services scarcity is the greatest and stigma against treatment is the highest.

Promises and traps ahead

Teletherapy is still so new that questions remain about its effectiveness and accessibility. Researchers interviewed for this story agreed that easier access for people like community college students holds promise, but more research is needed.

Barriers to teletherapy also remain for some groups, due to lack of internet or smartphone access. The public doesn’t always realize how many college students are struggling with basic needs like food, shelter and transportation, said Sara Abelson, senior director of training and education at The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. in a national survey 2020 Of college students, the Hope Center found that more than a third of community college students often did not have enough food to eat, and 14% became homeless at some point during the year.

Abelson said the Hope Center’s future research on basic needs will include collecting data on mental health, with attention to its relationship to lack of food and housing. “We believe and we know that universities have to connect their dots,” he said. “When [students] go to one place for SNAP, another for mental health support — [schools] they have to think holistically about the supports that serve students.”

At the same time, the rapid rise of teletherapy startups is calling into question quality. Some online therapists have complained that teletherapy appointments are too short, and some startups seem more focused on growth than helping patients. A recent Time history revealed that federal investigators are currently investigating Done and Cerebral teletherapy services for potential overprescribing practices.

However, many community college students who have used teletherapy say it has helped them. After the Solano Community College student sought help with teletherapy, she began telling other students about it. “I remember this student, she was really struggling,” she said. “I was considering dropping out of school. I told him to use the ‘Talk Now’ button and find someone to talk to about it.”

As teletherapy becomes more popular and perhaps even the norm, universities are looking to expand what they can offer students with digital help, hoping to prevent mental health issues before they become crises. . Many teletherapy apps have added wellness components: online yoga classes, meditation, and other preventative measures that students can access on their smartphones at any time. And at least one app, TimelyCare, has added help for basic needs like food, housing, and transportation, all at the touch of a button.

Alessandra, a sophomore computer science student at Germanna Community College, said she thought she was having a panic attack the night she pushed the “TalkNow” button. She was overwhelmed with thoughts of failure, worried about her GPA, and couldn’t breathe.

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