Telemedicine: A Prescription for Campus Mental Health Services?

Study: 1 in 5 College Students Contemplate Suicide

American college students are besieged. More than three out of four reported feeling overwhelmed during the past year, according to the latest American College Health Association survey. Nearly half said they experienced extreme anxiety the previous 12 months. One in three said they had trouble functioning because they felt too depressed. Almost 9 percent seriously thought about killing themselves.

Compounding this dismal state of student mental health is the failure of schools to provide access to needed mental health care.

Demand for counseling services has risen sharply in the past decade. But many colleges and universities regularly wait-list students for treatments, sometimes with lists that grow to several dozen names. What’s more, 38 percent of schools have no mental health services on campus, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

New Approach Encourages Students to Get Help

Telemedicine may be a remedy. This burgeoning healthcare niche links traditional psychotherapy with webcam-equipped computers to deliver treatments via the Internet. Licensed mental health counselors can provide consultation, diagnose conditions, prescribe medication and refer students to emergency or specialty care –– all without an in-person visit.

Telepsychiatry and tele-mental health offer easy access and privacy, the lack of which often discourages students from treatment. Remote medicine also allows universities to expand mental health services without big outlays for buildings and staff. And, handled properly, video conferencing can be just as effective as face-to-face treatments for a range of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks and ADHD.

Since 2012, the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has operated an online behavioral health clinic to connect with clients for virtual counseling and psychotherapy sessions.

The clinic, whose staff is supervised by faculty members from USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, serves a diverse population ranging from adolescents to seniors, graduate students, veterans, parents with special needs children and survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Here’s How It Works

Clients can sign in for their 50-minute, weekly sessions in English or Spanish from a laptop, computer, tablet or smartphone. Dr. Nadia Islam, clinical director of USC Telehealth, says teletherapy poses few of the obstacles –– including lack of transportation, childcare or time off from class or work –– that can deter all but the most determined patient.

“Many of the clients that we work with tell us that they have never sought therapy in the past, or if they have sought therapy, they haven’t stuck with it,” said Islam, who also is a professor with Dworak-Peck’s online Doctor of Social Work program. “What we’ve found is that for the most part, these are individuals who would not opt to seek services in a traditional brick-and-mortar facility.”

Fewer than 10 percent of U.S colleges offer telepsychiatry services. One that does, West Virginia University, credits its webcam program with reaching rural residents who have scant access to mental health and addiction care.

Advantages of Telemedicine

The marriage of telecommunications and medicine goes way back. In 1879, a doctor determined an infant did not have croup after listening to the child’s cough over the phone. The modern era of telepsychiatry arguably began in 1955, when the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute tested two-way, closed-circuit television for consultations and group therapy.

Today, the technical requirements are much more modest. Clients need a computer that’s usually no more than 4 years old, with a mic, speakers and a webcam. Or they can use camera-equipped smartphones or other devices with Wi-Fi or reliable Internet connections. They can receive counseling in their homes or dorm rooms or in supervised offices called tele-suites.

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