Earlier this month, when Laurie Burstein-Maxwell checked in on the students she works with through DMAX Foundation, a Bryn Mawr-based organization addressing mental-health issues on college campuses through peer support clubs, she received a wide range of responses.
Some said that the counselors at their colleges were overbooked and clearly unable to help every student who reached out to them. Others said their schools had yet to share information about mental-health resources. Many of the students said that since campuses closed because of the pandemic, their mental health has deteriorated, mentioning increased feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness and fear.
“We’re hearing from students who are experiencing so many fears,” said Burstein-Maxwell, executive director and founder of DMAX, which has chapters at Drexel, Pennsylvania State, and Temple Universities. “What’s going on in the world today is so anxiety-provoking and so worrisome that it can be really detrimental to students when they’re not able to talk about it.”
As many colleges in the area prepare to reopen campuses for the fall semester, most are making changes to mental-health services for students. Administrators know the need for counseling and psychiatric services will likely increase — a survey in April by Active Minds, a national nonprofit focused on raising mental-health awareness among college students, found that 80% of respondents said COVID-19 had negatively affected their mental health, and 20% said their mental health has significantly worsened during the pandemic.
Rates of depression have increased compared with spring 2019, according to a survey of more than 18,000 college students across 14 campuses published this month by researchers at Boston University and the University of Michigan. Of those respondents, 60% also reported that the pandemic has made it harder for them to access mental-health care.
“There is a tremendous amount of anxiety among college students right now,” said Stacey Cahn, assistant director of integrated behavioral health at Rowan University’s Wellness Center. “At the same time, we know that mental-health issues are one of the primary reasons for student dropout.”
But higher education institutions in the Philadelphia area are also facing financial pressure, which some have addressed through layoffs and salary cuts, causing mental-health experts to worry about possible decreases to services.
“Colleges are hesitating to make real decisions for financial reasons right now,” said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds. “We know when asked, senior leaders are trying to keep mental health as a top priority, but there are also competing financial decisions.”
Is tele-therapy the answer?
When Rowan reopens for the fall semester, staff will use tele-therapy for individual and group sessions to avoid exposure to the virus, said Amy Hoch, associate director of the Wellness Center.
“In March, we scrambled to find a platform, put together a consent form about telehealth procedures, and talked through all that with students,” Hoch said. “Everything that we’re planning now with a restart plan is still not exactly certain. … We have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. We have to plan for the possibility that we shut down again, that we have to maintain telehealth across state lines.”
Villanova University also plans to offer all mental-health services by telehealth, including counseling, referrals, consultations, evaluations, and psychiatry, said Joan Whitney, associate vice president and director of the university’s counseling center. In addition, the center will form a support group for students experiencing anxiety from COVID-19.
Montgomery County Community College is trying something similar: free online therapy for students through a partnership with Talkspace, an app that connects users to licensed therapists who offer sessions over text, audio, and video. Victoria Bastecki-Perez, president of the community college, said the pandemic magnified the need for mental-health services for the college, which was already fast-tracking student health initiatives.
“It infused a sense of urgency into the team,” Bastecki-Perez said. “As a community college, we know most of our students are from Montgomery County and they remain in our county after graduation, so we want to help them be secure in the long term.”
David Kowalski, associate vice president of institutional effective and strategic innovation of the community college, said early data from the app are encouraging. So far, 136 users have signed up, and a third of them reported that Talkspace is their first experience in therapy.
“That’s a really positive find for us, because it’s showing us that if we decrease the cost and remove that barrier, people are interested in using this service,” Kowalski said.
Swarthmore College is also planning to offer Talkspace in the fall, according to David Ramirez, director of counseling and psychological services.
“Swarthmore College is committed to providing equal access to our services and serving students from a wide range of financial backgrounds,” Ramirez said. “We will offer a modified version of what we ordinarily offer, including telehealth services, because a significant portion of our student body will be living off-campus.”
Active Minds recently published a set of guidelines to help colleges prioritize mental health during this time, and Horne said based on student responses, teletherapy has proven to be incredibly effective in serving their needs.
“Even before the pandemic, what we heard from college counseling centers and students was that the traditional structure around providing mental-health resources needed to shift,” she said. “Most students do not fear asking for help, so the need for services has gone up.”
As a result, one of the positive changes of the pandemic has been that counseling centers are now able to experiment with teletherapy and telehealth, Horne said. In particular, Black, Latinx and Asian American students tend to appreciate telehealth services that increase their access to culturally sensitive providers, she pointed out.
“Recently a telehealth provider released data that showed 35% of students who were offered services used them,” Horne said. “The majority of them were satisfied with their experience. That tells me when telehealth services are provided and adequately promoted by the school, students are willing to try them.”