By Mary Kate McGrath - December 3, 2018
Across the United States, campus officials are struggling to meet the demand for mental healthcare on campus. Telemedicine can help treat the college mental health crisis and could be a way to meet the needs for counseling services, using face time capability to link students to traditional therapy services.
The college mental health crisis is a growing concern. Many colleges and universities offer mental health services, but these resources may be limited or ill-equipped to tackle the rising number students who are struggling. In recent years, the number of walk-in visits has increased exponentially requiring colleges to hire more psychologists, counselors, and clinical social workers to handle student cases. The demand for services has risen so sharply, that many colleges must wait-list students.
According to the National College Health Assessment, 64% of college students reported feeling “overwhelmingly anxious”. Even more concerning, 42% reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function”. The CDC reports that the suicide rate among young adults has tripled since the 1950's, and it is currently the second leading cause of death among college age students. These statistics show that the crisis is putting student safety at risk, and every higher education institution should have a plan to offer young people resources and care on campus.
There are many ways that schools can take a proactive approach to mental health, providing a campus culture that fosters the physical and mental well being of students. This can include giving the staff and school officials the training to understand when a student is struggling, and guide them to the resources to help. The issue that arises is the availability of resources - and telemedicine can ensure that care is offered around the clock, but also that the school is able to manage the influx of students who need help.
Telemedicine connects licensed mental health professionals with students, allowing them to provide consultation, diagnose issues, write prescription, and refer students to emergency or specialized care. It may surprise students and administrators to learn that these services can be offered virtually, meeting student needs without an in-person visit. Virtual medicine allows schools to expand services without an increase in office space or in-house staff. The trade-off does not sacrifice care, and is thought to be equally effective in treating mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and more.
There are a few downsides to telemedicine. Certain conditions may be more difficult to diagnose without meeting in person, and students should always be able to seek a second opinion if care is inadequate. There are also confidentiality issues, as it’s possible that students may not be able to take the appointment in a private space where peers won’t walk in or overhear. Even so, the benefits still make telemedicine worth including as part of the college or university’s comprehensive mental health resources.
Telemedicine works by allowing students to sign up for an approximate 50-minute session or weekly session from a tablet, computer, smartphone, or other device. Given the option, students may actually prefer to seek help this way as telehealth and tele-psychiatry as it can offer easy access and privacy. It also can help students who have additional obstacles to care, such as lack of transportation, childcare, or lack of time off from work. The convenience can be a major plus on large campuses, where students may have to travel to reach the student health center.
Across the United States, telemedicine has allowed school’s to successfully increase access to care. The University of Washington Tacoma is hoping that the telemedicine program introduced in 2017 will help boost the number of students who take advantage of the on-campus clinic, which was at about 30%. The University of California at Berkeley uses telemedicine to give students access to healthcare on off-hours. The campus partnered with a certified telemedicine provider to give students access to medical help form 5 PM to 8 AM during the work week and on weekends. This way, no matter what time a student is having a mental health crisis, they will be able to confer with a medical professional.
These are not the only campuses to take advantage of telemedicine. The University of Southern California has a telehealth clinic that offers tele-therapy and other services to students. The clinic supervisor Suzanne Dworak-Peck notes that the service has empowered some students to seek therapy for the first time. “Many of the clients that we work with tell us that they have never sought therapy in the past, or if they have sought therapy, they haven’t stuck with it,” she said. “What we’ve found is that for the most part, these are individuals who would not opt to seek services in a traditional brick-and-mortar facility.”
University of West Virginia is also among the small but growing percentage of college or university campuses that offer telehealth. The university is able to reach rural residents who don’t have access to mental health or addiction care using a webcam. The University of Southern Mississippi has leveraged the tool in a similar manner, investing in the technology to successfully reach more patients.
The telemedicine services available are easy to access for students. The service can usually be accessed as long as a computer has a mic, webcam, and speakers. If this isn’t available, students can also use smartphones or other devices as long as there is WiFi or Internet connection for the appointment. The students should be able to take the appointment in their homes, dorm rooms, or in supervised offices.
Many students who need mental health services do not seek help. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40% of students do not seek help for a mental health issue. It’s important for schools to consider the barriers to access, and what may be stopping these students. While financial barriers or stigma could definitely be playing a part, it’s also likely that many students do not understand the resources available to them on campus.
A mass notification tool can be a simple way to inform students of changes in mental health resources on campus. If the school or campus is introducing a telemedicine program for students, it’s important for administrators to inform the campus population of the new resource. Many students who need help may not realize that it can be found on campus. The extra speed and convenience of a telehealth session will likely be appealing to students, who already struggle to balance busy schedules.
A campus safety app can be another way to reach students. In addition to allowing the user to talk directly with campus safety or law enforcement during an emergency, it also has a directory to find resources. If students need mental healthcare, the app will provide the appropriate information to reach out for care.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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