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Telehealth Gives College Students a Discreet Path to Counseling

Universities and colleges are turning to telehealth platforms and mHealth tools to connect with students who need mental health care but can't or don't want to walk into a health center and ask for help.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Healthcare providers are discovering that a telehealth platform is an effective forum for connecting with college students dealing with stress and other mental health issues.

“It can introduce a lot of people to a form of therapy they haven’t had before,” says Brian Tobin, a post-graduate counseling Fellow at Vermont’s Middlebury College who’s been using connected health for close to a year to work with students. “What surprises me is how much they really do like it. It’s like another app to them.”

College-age students are seeking mental health assistance at a higher rate than ever before, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.  And in separate research conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, the most common issues are anxiety (48.2 percent), stress (39.1 percent) and depression (34.5 percent), with family issues, relationship problems and academic concerns not far behind.

But those students aren’t always comfortable walking into the health center and asking for help, or they might not have the time or resources to commit to in-person counseling sessions. Combine that with a shortage of healthcare providers to meet that rising need, and today’s colleges and universities are under the gun to find new ways to treat their charges.

Telehealth platforms have been addressing that need for the past few years. Among the first was Colorado State University, which first turned to telemedicine and mHealth in 2008 to tackle a mental health crisis that had led to eight suicides over two semesters.

READ MORE: Avera Adding 24/7 Telemental Health to eCARE Telemedicine Platform

“It’s an extension of our counseling services,” Anne Hudgens, executive director of the CSU Health Network and the school’s former dean of students, noted in a 2016 interview with mHealthIntelligence. “Students live in a 24/7 world, facing a lot of stress and pressure … and we’re not open 24/7.”

“Students are dealing with a myriad of issues, and often they don’t even think about it in terms of mental health,” added Joe Conrad, a CSU alumnus and founder of Grit Digital Health, which partnered with CSU to launch the [email protected] portal. “What we wanted was a solution that really met students where they are … and allowed them to find what they need.”

Roughly a decade later, telehealth and telemedicine providers are tailoring their online platforms and mobile health tools to reach the college-age population, and colleges and universities are using them to reach their student populations.

In 2018, SilverCloud Health, one of the larger telemental health providers in the fast-growing market, announced a partnership with Gallagher Student Health & Special Risk to push the platform out to more schools and students. Among the more than 200 academic institutions accessing SilverCloud’s digital health platform is Middlebury College, a 2,500-student private liberal arts school tucked into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

“This gives us a digital interface,” says Tobin, who uses the platform to augment in-person counseling or replace those in-person visits when appropriate. “We can decide what works best (for the student) and go from there. A lot of this is driven by the student.”

READ MORE: Telehealth Gives Patients a Real-Time Link to Mental Health Support

“It’s an incredible way to broadly offer mental health resources and support,” he says.

Platforms like those offered by SilverCloud can come in many shapes and sizes. They might include a virtual visit portal so that student and counselor can connect by video or phone, on a PC. Laptop or smartphone. They might include an asynchronous (store-and-forward) platform enabling students to fill out daily surveys at their convenience, which the counselors then review and use to adjust care management plans. They might also include links to other resources, from self-help and peer-support groups to videos and literature.

“This gives me an opportunity to engage with an audience that isn’t interested in knee-to-knee therapy,” says Tobin. “It’s not a replacement for that therapy, but another way to deliver it.”

As with any telemental health platform, effectiveness is measured in data collected, and that’s still in the early stages. As more and more encounters are logged and information is collected, providers will be able to better see what channels work best. A future platform might include passive sensors that detect strong emotions like stress, perhaps built into the mobile device or a wearable.

Tobin is especially interested in how telehealth and mHealth can be used to treat students facing a serious mental health crisis.

“How can we tailor this to attend to more acute situations?” he asks. “How can we effectively triage” students who are very depressed or suicidal?

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