Counseling Goes Digital in Efforts to Improve Mental Health Services

Stress, worry, anxiety... these feelings affect nearly all college students as they work towards completing a degree. We hear about mental health conditions from friends, family and coworkers, and many people are bound to know at least one person affected by these conditions. But it is also a topic that college students rarely talk about with their peers or families for fear of being stigmatized.

According to Active Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues among college students, 50 percent of the population will experience a mental health condition during their lifetime. Mental health is comprised of our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and can affect how we think, feel, and act.

Many factors can give rise to mental health conditions. According to the Institute of Medicine, social and environmental factors (such as peer rejection and work stress), or institutional influences (the lack of  mental health services) can all lead to mental health problems. Among adolescents and young adults, increases in screen and social media use is associated with poorer mental health status. 

In the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression studies, more than 80 percent of college students said they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year, and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless. Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus. And yet, 34.2 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis. So how can we prevent and overcome these issues?

A New Solution 

In 2015, SUNY brought together a working group to discuss the increase in requests for mental health services on college campuses. That group recommended a focus on innovative, technology-driven solutions to mental health treatment. In response to the group’s work, and enabled by a $300,000 appropriation from the New York State Legislature, SUNY’s Office of Academic Health and Hospital Affairs coordinated a mental health telecounseling pilot in the spring of 2018. Providers in the Upstate Medical University psychiatry clinic, led by Dr. Christopher Lucas, were to provide counseling sessions via online video conference tools.

Four campuses participated in the spring 2018 Student Tele-Counseling Network (STCN) pilot phase: SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Oswego, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Onondaga Community College. The pilot was funded by New York State. The participating campuses had counseling centers, where students were referred to the telecounseling program by their local campus counselors.

Participation by students was entirely optional in this program, and all care was provided through a secure online platform. To ensure student safety, participants were required to have their telecounseling sessions at the campus counseling center. At the end of care, students were transitioned back to the campus counseling center or health center for ongoing treatment or management of symptoms.

The telecounseling program connected students to a physician, psychologist, or nurse practitioner at Upstate who could help with a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Services were provided at no out of-pocket-cost to students or campuses, and all conversations were confidential. Services included diagnostic assessment with treatment recommendations; evidence-based psychotherapies; and medication management for existing diagnoses.

The STCN program was designed to support the growing number of students who seek mental health services, and to reduce their wait time to receive counseling. For some campuses, this was the only way to provide psychiatric care to college students without referring them to a community provider.

Telecounseling's Future at SUNY

Campuses and providers regarded the pilot phase as a success, with most students seen within two weeks of referral. Providers said they were able to connect as effectively with patients as if they were being seen in a typical office.

The pilot program, which was conducted from January-June 2018, was able to help both providers with busy schedules and the students who were referred to the program.

In September 2018, the STCN program grew to eight SUNY schools, with Upstate Medical University continuing to provide care. New participating schools are Binghamton University, Morrisville State, and SUNY Cobleskill. The continuing pilot project includes support for diagnostics, telepsychiatry or cognitive behavioral therapy; and consultation services.

With the program expanding, the goal is to eventually offer these services on all SUNY campuses and de-stigmatize mental health problems in college students. Efforts are ongoing to continue the support we've seen from New York's legislators and communities. 

Alleviating mental health conditions often requires regular counseling sessions with a qualified therapist. Now that we know this can be safely and securely accomplished remotely, SUNY will work to ensure all students have access to the mental health resources and support they need, so they can complete their degrees and move on to a successful post-graduate life.