It’s been said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” In practicality, this means that if a need or problem occurs, an innovation transpires to meet the need or solve the problem. In higher education, a serious problem occurred when the COVID-19 global pandemic caused colleges and universities across the country to close early in the spring. Higher ed leaders had to determine how their institutions could continue to provide a high-quality education and support student well-being remotely. Typically slow to change, higher ed made significant changes and innovations in a short amount of time to move learning and several student services online. Perhaps the most notable student service that shifted online for many institutions was mental health care.
The Need for Mental Health Services
This shift to virtual care for mental health services was significant and necessary for college students. Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students, discovered near the end of the spring semester that 20% of college students reported a significant decline in their mental health. More broadly, 80% of students said that COVID-19 had negatively impacted their mental health in some way. Stress, anxiety, disappointment, sadness, loneliness, isolation, financial setback and relocation all were cited by students as ways that their mental health had been impacted.
Mental health continued to be a concern over the summer. A survey by TimelyMD, a telehealth company that specializes in higher education, revealed that 85% of college students continued to experience increased stress and/or anxiety, due primarily to the uncertainty surrounding their education. As schools returned for the fall semester, mental health issues remained. In fact, the CDC recently shared that one in four (25.5%) in the 18-24 age group said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.
With the pandemic still causing campus closures and remote learning, it’s been difficult or impossible to access in-person counseling or therapy for students. This fact was exposed even more as a Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association (ACHA) survey found that 60% of students said the pandemic had made it more difficult to access the mental health that they need. Mental health issues did not stop while students were away from campus. It only served to exacerbate issues related to isolation. Into this gap stepped virtual care through telehealth.
“Students are experiencing an upheaval in their lives,” said Dr. Jan Hall, executive director of mental health at TimelyMD. “Right now they do not have the stability of knowing what to expect, and many have not yet developed the navigational skills to successfully manage the changing environments. As students feel stuck and hopeless, even thoughts of suicide may cross their minds. Now more than ever, it is important for students to utilize the mental health resources available — especially resources like on-demand telehealth that are easily accessible day and night.”
Complications of Managing Virtual Care
Many organizations indicated that telehealth and virtual services would play a key role in supporting students during the pandemic, including the ACHA and CDC. Active Minds made “maintaining telehealth services” it’s number one priority in its recommendations for prioritizing student mental health and campus-wide healing and recovery during COVID-19.
However, as student services shifted online, many counseling centers and health clinics found themselves adopting new technologies like Zoom, FaceTime or other video conference services to connect with students. While HIPAA regulations and state licensure requirements were relaxed in many ways to support virtual care, many complications serving students virtually still remained. Many questions had yet to be answered by counseling center and clinic directors. Are providers licensed in states where students are located? What is the digital intake process? What is the safety plan for students who need to be referred for in-person care?
“In light of these complexities, having a telehealth partner with a diverse network of providers and licensing in all fifty states alleviates these concerns and opens up access to care for students — wherever they may be,” said Dr. Alan Dennington, chief medical officer at TimelyMD. “This type of strategic partner takes the guesswork out of telehealth and student healthcare.”
Bringing Innovation to Campus Through Telehealth
Some institutions chose to take on these issues with their own resources, but for campuses with a strategic telehealth partner, three key benefits include:
1. Increasing access to care
On campuses without a virtual care option, counseling centers often have normal business hours to see students for appointments. Telehealth expands mental health care from 9 to 5 to 24/7/365, which is increasingly important as suicidal ideation rises among those in the college age group. Additionally, telehealth providers serve as an extension of existing on-campus healthcare resources by sharing records back to the clinics and following protocols for in-person referrals and critical situations.
2. Eliminating wait times
It is not uncommon for schools to have a ratio of one counselor for every 1,200 undergraduate students on campus, or for there to be a wait of close to two weeks for students to talk to counselors. On-demand mental health care through telehealth meets students where they are with the emotional support they need — day or night. This means no more delays for students in need of immediate care.
3. Reducing the stigma of seeking care
While the stigma of asking for help or going to see a counselor in person have been reduced over the years, many students still are not comfortable with mental health care or talking to a counselor. Telehealth enables students to access care whenever and wherever they are comfortable.
It’s important that colleges and universities continue to be proactive, innovative and agile in response to how the global pandemic is impacting student mental health. Organizations like The JED Foundation (JED) offer helpful resources to get started. Learn more about how telehealth can support student mental health by visiting the TimelyMD website.
TimelyMD is a strategic telehealth partner for colleges and universities across the country, including Abilene Christian University, Johns Hopkins University, The Claremont Colleges and Paul Quinn College. Focused on improving the health of student populations, TimelyMD offers universities and colleges a comprehensive, custom program centered around telehealth. TimelyMD’s campus-wide solution gives students one point of contact — anytime, anywhere — by board certified physicians and licensed counselors to receive quality care and immediate treatment for medical or mental health concerns. TimelyMD’s telehealth programs optimize clinic resources and support clinic staff in delivering quality care to the right students at the right times. Contact TimelyMD for more information.
Chris Clark, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of TimelyMD
Chris is a co-founder and the Chief Strategy Officer of TimelyMD — a telehealth company focused on transforming healthcare in higher education by improving student health, optimizing campus clinic resources and granting peace of mind to both students and parents.
Chris is passionate about helping higher education decision-makers realize the transformative power and utility of telehealth to address a range of challenges experienced in healthcare services, student engagement and campus retention. In his role as Chief Strategy Officer, he leads the development of corporate strategy and vertical segments for TimelyMD. This includes strategic planning for the company, as well as the forging of new relationships with clients and business partners.
Prior to founding TimelyMD, Chris spent 16 years in the bio-pharmaceutical industry working for Merck and Amgen. He held various roles with increasing responsibility, spanning sales, learning and development, account management, strategy and leadership.
Chris earned a BBA Marketing & Management from Abilene Christian University and MBA Management from The University of Texas Permian Basin.