The pandemic has impacted student mental health, but virtual therapy options can help improve the student experience on campus

Using talk therapy to improve student mental health

The pandemic has impacted student mental health, but virtual therapy options can help improve the student experience on campus

As a result of and the global COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine orders, the U.S. is facing a concurrent epidemic in mental health, and we’ve seen that college students are one of the groups feeling the effects. This makes student mental health an absolute priority at institutions across the country.

Roughly 46.6 million Americans suffer from a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder, which represents nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, this figure jumps to 25.8 percent. Even more concerning is the fact that 7.5 percent of young adults suffer from a mental illness serious enough to cause meaningful functional impairment on a daily basis.

Related content: Critical actions to support student mental health

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating this issue. According to an August poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53 percent of American adults say their mental health has been negatively impacted due to coronavirus-related worry and stress. Younger college-aged students are undoubtedly impacted similarly in regard to their mental health as they experience significant financial strain and face a higher level of uncertainty about their futures, while also isolating from friends and loved ones.

In fact, 70 percent of college mental health counseling directors recently noted there has been a significant increase in the number of students living with serious psychological conditions over the last few years. At the same time, only 19 percent of those counselors said their campus has the student mental health services adequate to meet this growing need.

As educators passionate about and dedicated to the success of our students, I believe we have an obligation to step in and play a role in alleviating this issue. Without a doubt, mental health treatment and counseling must be done by professionals. But considering our daily interactions with students and deep understanding of what it takes for them to be successful, there’s an opportunity for us to more actively facilitate access to professional help.

College guidance counseling offices are a great place to start, but many students simply fail to recognize or take advantage of student mental health services. Wait times for counseling appointments can be long and these offices typically face constrained resources. Considering the growing scope of this epidemic, providing access to a deeper bench of mental health experts has become imperative.

While nothing new, talk therapy is one treatment method that has the ability to make a tremendous positive impact on student mental health support. In today’s socially distant world, in-person therapy simply isn’t an option for most, but innovative new online therapy providers, such as TalkSpace and Betterhelp, have been able to provide support to those in need.

Online therapy providers facilitate talk therapy sessions either through video chat, phone call, or text message. This model offers patients several benefits. It improves accessibility to therapists by removing geographic barriers, and sessions are typically cheaper considering there’s no need for a physical office. By allowing patients to take sessions from home, there’s also a greater sense confidentiality.

These services are already making a real difference. According to one survey, 93 percent of patients felt they could present the same information virtually as they could in person, 96 percent were happy with their sessions, and 85 percent felt comfortable speaking to a therapist this way. Another study found that individuals using message-based online therapy experienced as much as a 50 percent reduction in depressive symptoms and a 57 percent decline in anxiety symptoms after four months.

As a leading community college with an intense focus on providing our students with the tools they need to be successful in life, Montgomery County Community College has realized a scaled opportunity in these online therapy providers. I’m proud to say we’ve become the first community college to provide direct, free access to Talkspace for all our students and have already witnessed its impact on student mental health. We also provide free access to an online mental health screening service as well as a student support team dedicated to confidentially referring students and faculty to healthcare professionals and other community resources.

After offering free access to online therapy, we saw more than 325 students sign up since the program launch. Further, more than 48 percent of these initial signups had never sought counseling support before, indicating the growing need for this type of service in the current climate. So far, 64 percent of users who completed assessments saw improvement. We’re continuing to improve awareness of our student mental health programs in hopes of providing every student with the help they need.

In my more than 30-year career in higher education, one of the most silent, overlooked aspects of campus life is student mental health. I urge all colleges and universities to take the mental health of their students very seriously – not just during the global pandemic, making scaled solutions part of your systemic services portfolio. Online therapy is a scientifically proven treatment, and I encourage institutional leaders to make it a priority to bring mental health services to their students in easily accessible and on-demand ways during the pandemic and beyond.

In times like these, we all need essential supports to thrive. It is imperative that we commit to ensuring that all students receive what they need to be successful through the intentional design of the college experience.

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