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Dive Brief:

  • Colleges should consider using a teletherapy provider if students are seeing a wait time of more than five days for counseling services, according to a recent report from the American Council on Education. 
  • ACE advised college leaders to evaluate prospective vendors based on several factors, including if they can ensure confidentiality and comply with health laws, are licensed in multiple states, offer different modalities and can handle an increase in capacity during high stress times like midterms and finals.
  • Institutions should also survey their students to properly assess the potential gaps in mental healthcare before contracting with a telehealth vendor, the report said.

Dive Insight:

Since the pandemic, colleges are increasingly turning to telehealth services as a way of meeting the demand for counseling support. The number of telehealth companies looking to work with higher ed institutions has risen in kind.

“The variety of services teletherapy vendors offer — from chatbots to virtual therapy — can be overwhelming, particularly when the stakes for students’ mental health are higher than ever,” the report said.

Research shows teletherapy — when people receive one-on-one therapy with licensed professionals over the phone or through a video platform — can be effective for treating depression and anxiety. 

Outsourced teletherapy services can reduce wait times and offer year-round access to care. This is especially important for colleges in rural areas with limited healthcare options and for students who return home to remote areas.

While the average wait time for counseling services is five days, that standard isn’t acceptable for those experiencing a mental health emergency, the report said. 

“A student in crisis should be seen within 24 hours, even if it is just for a triage appointment or evaluation,” it said.

However, teletherapy poses a number of drawbacks, ACE said. Students need to feel certain their therapy sessions are confidential. Virtual treatment creates the possibility of privacy leaks and cyberattacks, both of which plague the higher education sector.

And internet access among college students is inequitable, especially among low-income students and those in rural areas.

“If a student is in crisis, a dropped connection leaves a student who is experiencing an acute issue without access to their provider,” the report said. 

The influence of these factors varies from campus to campus, so it is crucial that college leaders evaluate the level of need at their institution and gather feedback from students, the report said.

A student survey, for example, would help determine which modalities of teletherapy are preferred and if 24/7 telehealth options are needed. ACE advises campuses to provide some kind of round-the-clock mental health service if they do not use a private vendor to do so.

Cost is also a big consideration for students. While one prominent vendor said 70% of students report using available teletherapy options when they are offered for free, that share drops to 20% when students must pay fees, according to the report. 

College leaders can also reach out to other campuses to discuss their experiences with a particular vendor. If the two institutions are similar, these conversations can highlight potential strong suits or pain points.