Technology Solutions in College Behavioral Health

Dana Humphrey / July 10, 2018

As colleges and universities struggle with the increasing demand for counseling services, students and administrators alike are looking to technological solutions to address the crisis.

Ohio State University launched a counseling mobile app that allows students to make an appointment, access breathing exercises, and contact the clinic in case of an emergency. University of Minnesota expanded their app Learn to Live, an online tool providing mental health screening and other therapy modules, to all five campuses last fall. Harvard University’s Bliss app is designed to improve accessibility by offering a personal approach to navigate through resources on campus. The University of Texas Austin associate director for clinical services told the student newspaper the Daily Texan earlier this year that the health center is searching for new solutions, saying “We’ll actually be looking at our system over the summer – how we can use technology to make it more effective.” But colleges do not have to create their own solutions, as there are many companies providing new tools to students nationwide. Here are few we profiled:

You at College
The You at College platform from Grit Digital Health is a student wellbeing portal that compiles campus-specific resources, health promotion content, and tools and assessments created by behavioral health experts. The You at College platform connects students to information that addresses not only their mental and physical health, but also their academic success and social wellbeing.

The portal collects data through lifestyle surveys called Reality Checks, providing students with feedback on their own behavior and steps they can take to improve their wellbeing. The site is customized for the individual student based on these surveys, as well as their demographics and interactions with the site.

A campus dashboard allows campus administrators to view aggregate data regarding students’ usage of the site, providing them with a detailed look at their student body’s needs and interests while maintaining confidentiality. This data can help inform outreach efforts and programming. The platform is designed to help students and administrators address the challenges of college life proactively.

Nathaan Demers, Vice President & Director of Clinical Programs at Grit Digital Health, says that one of the most important aspects of these kinds of tools is that students will find it engaging. According to Demers, Grit consulted college students for their input on the platform from the beginning.

Therapy Assistance Online
Another platform, Therapy Assistance Online (TAO), provides a suite of evidence-based digital tools for wellbeing resilience and behavioral health. TAO was founded in 2013 by Dr. Sherry Benton, who was working as the director of counseling at a large, public university, when she realized that the long waiting lists at the counseling center could not be resolved by adding more staff. TAO is based on the Stepped Care model, offering more intensive treatment options depending upon the severity of the issues a student is struggling with. It provides self-help tools when students need support and education, and professionally guided help when the student’s problems require a higher level of care. This model is increasingly being adopted at resource-constrained college counseling centers.

The tools in TAO include entertaining, interactive and evidence-based education modules, assessments, screening tools for behavioral health problems, artificial intelligence tools, skill practicing resources, and a video conferencing to connect to a therapist. Campuses can use the tool for student training in well-being and resilience, stress management training, student conduct and conflict resolution, web-based self-help and therapist-assisted care assigned by a clinician at the counseling center.

A study that compared students using TAO to students completing treatment as usual (one-on-one therapy at university counseling centers) found that students using TAO experienced a greater reduction in their anxiety symptoms. The study also found that both groups participated in a similar number of sessions before ending treatment, an encouraging sign, since a challenge of technology-enhanced therapy is that drop-out rates tend to be higher than for face-to-face sessions.

Talkspace is an online and mobile therapy company that matches customers up with a licensed therapist for a weekly fee. Talkspace recently partnered with the national organizations of the Delta Tau Delta and Alpha Tau Omega fraternities to provide counseling to their members. Talkspace plans start at $32 a week, which allows unlimited text messages to the therapist, with answers to be expected a few times per day. After completing an assessment and choosing a plan, a customer can be matched with a therapist and start messaging. This product can be especially useful for students in rural areas, where it might be more difficult to find an off-campus therapist.

Zencare, a start-up founded by a Brown University graduate, initially launched to help Brown students connect with off-campus mental health professionals. It’s now three years old and serves clients, about half of whom are college students, in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. Using video profiles, a free initial consultation phone call and an online booking system, the platform simplifies the process of connecting to therapists. The company is working to make therapy more affordable for college students by including therapists who accept school insurance plans, and aims to curate a network of highly diverse therapists.

This is a sampling of the many new tools available, and many more entering the market, that can help alleviate the surging demand at college counseling centers while engaging students in the help-seeking process.