As universities and colleges prepare to welcome students back to campus this fall, their counseling centers are already bracing themselves for the challenges to come. Facing a likely influx of students in crisis, campus mental health professionals will need new resources to support this vulnerable population. Telehealth, provided in the right way for the right patients, can be an important part of the student mental health solution.
Student mental health issues have long been common in higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated their vulnerability, as many struggled with feelings of fear, helplessness, grief, and resentment.
According to the CDC, one in four people aged 18-24 seriously contemplated suicide in June 2020, and a similar number increased their substance use; three-quarters faced at least one adverse mental health symptom. In recent research by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), students seeking services during the peak of the pandemic reported that it had negatively impacted their mental health, motivation or focus, loneliness and isolation, and academics.
As their need grew, their access to student mental health services actually decreased; the CCMH notes that college counseling centers served 32 percent fewer students during fall 2020 than fall 2020, as campus closures and the lack of private meeting spaces posed new barriers to care. Those who did manage to access care reflect increased need on an individual basis, with 20 percent more attended appointments per student. With nearly all centers offering online appointments starting in spring 2019, this trend may also reflect a decrease in no-show rates noted among students participating in telehealth appointments rather than conventional face-to-face meetings.
Combine rising need with constrained access to services over the past year, and the scale of the risk mitigation challenge over the coming academic year becomes clear, especially in light of the hurdles university health centers already face. Recruiting the providers needed to serve their population—in terms of sheer number as well as diversity and specialization—is a constant problem, especially in smaller towns and rural locations. With resources constrained, counseling centers are forced to limit the services they provide while somehow fulfilling their ethical duty.
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