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This technology can help higher ed address students’ mental health

Online therapy platforms can help colleges offer mental-health services to students

In 2018, the American Psychological Association found that more than one-third of first-year university students in eight countries reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder.

eCampus News was curious about how universities are addressing students’ mental health, so we spoke with Nancy Zlatkin, Psy.D., a psychologist at Florida International University (FIU). FIU has been using TAO Connect, an online therapy platform, for five years.

Using technology to address students’ mental health

Q: How long has FIU been offering therapy via TAO Connect?

FIU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has been offering TAO treatment since January 2014.

Q: How many students have taken advantage of the services?

As of September 2018, we’ve had 366 students use the services.

Q: Why did you feel the need to offer this benefit to students?

Our student population consists of both on-campus and online students. Because of this, it can be difficult to find supplemental counseling services that effectively reach every student and can be personalized to their own needs. While CAPS had developed several programs to empower students to take control of their own behavioral health, we were looking for more versatility in how our services were delivered.

Related: 4 student mental health apps to ease stress

Offering TAO to students was aligned with CAPS’ plan to increase parity in services between traditional students and online students. Furthermore, TAO had been shown to be effective for college students presenting to college counseling centers with specific issues. Students are now able to use tools such as anxiety monitoring logs, where they can report episodes of anxiety and apply lessons they’ve learned, as well as engage in videoconferences with their CAPS therapist in between face-to-face sessions.

As TAO developed, it demonstrated versatility by being available through a self-help option as well as integration into course instruction (e.g., Freshman Experience courses). For the students who have high-level motivation and lower-level issues such as mild anxiety, the self-help option lets them work at their own pace, on their own time. Essentially, the platform’s customization has proven to be beneficial for a wide array of behavioral scenarios.

Q: Do you have any metrics about its effectiveness? 

We evaluated TAO’s effectiveness using the Behavioral Health Measure 20, or the BHM-20. This is a 21-item scale-based measure that involves four major sub-scales: global mental health, well-being, life functioning, and symptoms. These can be further broken down into anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug use, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and suicide monitoring. When reviewing BHM-20 results at FIU after implementing TAO, students generally appear to report improvement in mood, anxiety, symptoms, and well-being. The greatest improvements also tend to occur in the first four sessions, emphasizing TAO’s effectiveness in providing information students can immediately apply to their lives.

Q: What advice would you give to other universities that may be thinking of working with TAO Connect (or another provider of online therapy)?

Investing in technology is the first step, but you have to customize it to your own student body to make it effective. Consider ways to involve departments outside of your counseling center to maximize opportunities to benefit students. Universities should be flexible with the ways TAO may be used to make the learning modules available to students through different avenues when appropriate (e.g., CAPS, Freshman Experience courses, athletics, etc.). You should also take time to train clinical staff regarding tele-behavioral practice in order to optimize clinician engagement.

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