A group of students hang out in a hallway, supporting each other and enjoying each other's company
Campus Mental Health

Why online psychiatry is crucial for college students’ mental health

Jean Gazis
Jean Gazis

Jean Gazis is a freelance writer and editor, who has written about mental health for companies, including Minded (now a part of UpLift).

10

min read

When Susan S. sent her son Austin, a college sophomore, back to campus, she had some major concerns. Besides the normal kid-going-away-to-school jitters and an ongoing pandemic, Susan was worried about her son’s mental health.

At around the same time the year before, just six weeks into the semester, Austin had called his mother in tears. Academic difficulties in a tough engineering program, isolation due to pandemic restrictions, and an unexpected breakup with his high-school girlfriend had sent him into an emotional tailspin. Susan tried to intervene, but school policy requires students to ask for help directly. Austin is shy and was reluctant to request counseling on campus, so he ended up finishing the semester remotely instead.

Even if Austin had asked for help, however, it’s possible it may not have been available. The demand for mental health services on campuses is higher than ever, and colleges and universities are struggling to keep up. According to the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) Annual Survey, the average wait time for an initial appointment at a college counseling center is 4 to 5 days. And on many campuses, there are limits as to what’s available. Nearly one-third of campus counseling centers don’t have even a part-time psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner, and those that do often don’t have enough hours to meet students’ needs.

31% of college counseling centers across America have no psychiatric provider on staff—and less than 50% of those that do have enough hours available.

“We’ve definitely seen a great increase in utilization of services and demand for services,” says Rhonda Schaller, assistant vice president for student affairs and chair of the Resilience, Wellness, and Well-Being Council at Pratt Institute in New York. “We noticed it right before the pandemic, and then, of course, with the pandemic.”

Pratt isn’t alone here. In an April 2021 American Council on Education survey, college and university presidents ranked student mental health as the most pressing issue on their campuses. That doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider that, according to a separate 2021 survey from the American College Health Association, 34.9% of students reported anxiety being an impediment to their academic performance, and 25.4% of students said the same about depression. For students who experienced anxiety or depression, those numbers rose to 53.7% and 61.3%, respectively.

“Young people are very comfortable with telemedicine,” says Dr. Juandalyn Peters, a board-certified psychiatrist in Florida who works with adolescents and young adults. “Their whole world is virtual.” 

Even if you take COVID-19 out of the equation, college is already a time that’s prime for mental health issues to arise. To begin with, many mental disorders first manifest themselves around ages 18 to 24—college age. Couple that with the stress that comes from being away from your usual support network for the first time, the pressure to perform academically, and possible financial worries, and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety and depression triggers. Add back in the fear and uncertainty that the pandemic brings, and you end up with a full-blown mental health crisis on campuses. 

Then, you have to factor in transitioning back to on-campus, in-person learning after a year or more of remote instruction, which creates new kinds of stress. Many students are worried about travel, vaccinations, compliance with masking policies, whether group activities and events are safe, and new virus variants. “We won’t even know some of the impact for a while,” says Deena Maerowitz, a college admissions consultant and author of a forthcoming book on colleges’ mental health services. “If there was a need for expanded services before—and there was—it’s even more now.”

So what are colleges and universities doing about it?

To combat this, many universities aim to ramp up their disability accommodations and counseling departments. For example, the State Universities of New York system announced that they would be adding $24 million to its existing $35 million budget for mental health resources. But stiff competition in hiring means that college counseling services will probably still be short-staffed and overworked. “It’s very hard for college campuses to hire psychiatric professionals,” says Schaller.

Telehealth options expand students’ access to mental health care

That makes new telehealth psychiatric services, like UpLift, an increasingly important option for students to get the care they need. UpLift offers virtual appointments within days with board-certified psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners who can prescribe medication online for depression, insomnia, and anxiety.  

Research has shown that telemedicine is effective in treating anxiety and depression. And the college demographic is particularly well-suited for it. “Young people are very comfortable with telemedicine,” says Dr. Juandalyn Peters, a board-certified psychiatrist in Florida who works with adolescents and young adults. “Their whole world is virtual.” 

Plus, adds Schaller, many colleges, including Pratt, switched to telemedicine during the height of the pandemic, so it’s a format students are used to. “The tele-appointment has been off the charts in satisfaction for all our students,” she adds. “They can use their phones, and go to a private place.” 

And that privacy can be key to getting more students’ to seek mental health services in the first place, agrees Dr. Jin Hee Yoon-Hudman, a psychiatrist. “Kids may not want to access student health services due to stigma,” she says.

Additionally, there’s an element of continuity of care to consider. “This is particularly important for this population because they have so many transitions over such a short span of time,” Dr. Yoon-Hudman continues. “By using a telehealth service... students can continue treatment after graduation.”

To find out if UpLift is a good fit for you, take our free assessment. And parents, feel free to forward this link to the college students in your life.

About the author
Jean Gazis

Jean Gazis is a freelance writer and editor, who has written about mental health for companies, including Minded (now a part of UpLift).

Edited by

Eliana Reyes

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