Giving Mental Health Support During COVID-19

by Haleigh Cadd | June 16, 2020
Giving Mental Health Support During COVID-19

Part three of a three-part series on how higher ed institutions can address the growing mental health crisis on today's college and university campuses. Read part one here and part two here.

Giving mental health support during COVID-19

Mental Health Support during COVID-19Now that students are home instead of on campus, feelings of anxiety and depression have worsened. This is because students are now navigating new stressors. As a result, their mental health has decreased. For example, many students could be experiencing job loss within the family or frustration with having to remain inside. Also, they may deal with the fear of becoming ill and irritation with online learning. As a result, students need mental health support during COVID-19.

More significantly, low-income students may face additional hurdles such as lack of adequate food, housing, technology, and high-speed Internet. These students are at a greater risk of emotional distress.

Likewise, LGBTQI+ students may lack privacy. In fact, LGBTQI+ students' situations may result in a unique struggle. This struggle is to hide their true selves while pretending to be someone they aren't. This is especially true in a home where they don't feel comfortable expressing their true selves.

Students need mental health support during COVID-19

With all this said, when students do not receive mental health support, they're more likely to skip class or procrastinate. They may also fail to complete academic work and drop out of college entirely. This is partially why many school systems have let students take mental sick days off from school. Clearly, students need immediate mental health support but may not know where to turn to find it.

If they are advised to seek out provide local services, students will likely not find a provider themselves. For example, they may not feel comfortable talking with someone they have no prior connection with. Also, the student might not be able to pay for services.

In order to keep students engaged, enrolled, and academically successful, educational institutions should provide counseling services if at all possible. Text-based counseling, which is cost-effective and can reduce staff workload, is one successful solution that many campuses have implemented.

Telecounseling with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to give mental health support

Telecounseling is the practice of providing mental health services from a distance via technology. This technology entails platforms such as text messaging, online chats, videoconferencing, and phone calls. Early research on the effectiveness of telecounseling shows that it is useful in several areas. These areas include lowering anxiety and providing CBT treatment for a number of different disorders. Virtual CBT, for example, teaches students to reframe negative “self-talk." Another thing virtual CBT teaches is how to think more positively and behave proactively.

With CBT, counselors use technology to guide students through healthy exercises. These healthy exercises include journaling to reflect on one’s feelings and prioritizing one’s daily schedule to reduce stress. Many studies have found virtual CBT to be as effective as face-to-face treatment. CBT works well because texting can remind students of healthy practices. CBT through text can also nudge them to complete mental exercises, thus providing mental health support during COVID-19.

Before COVID-19, educational institutions were using telecounseling as a supplemental service to meet the surge of need on their campuses. A pre-COVID-19 survey of campus mental health centers found that virtual counseling is useful for reaching students who might be hesitant to come in for face-to-face sessions. Thus, once a trusting relationship is established and students see the benefits of counseling, some were more likely to transition to face-to-face therapy using telecounseling.

Suggestions for telecounseling

During social distancing, it’s best for students already receiving mental health services to continuously meet with the same campus-based counselor. Telecounseling can work well for students located in the same state as the college or university. While some state medical licensing boards allow mental health providers to practice across state lines, others require counselors to have licenses in the same state as the client. This means that campus counselors need to know where a student is located. Campus counselors also need to know whether that state will allow telecounseling before starting any distance therapy.

These cross-state limitations may mean it is more effective to work with outside virtual mental health providers that have a national reach. If colleges are going to outsource counseling during COVID-19, they might consider screening students first to determine who is in-state and out-of-state. After this, the college can then continue to serve as many in-state students as possible and use a vendor for out-of-state students. Before signing a contract, it’s critical to ensure that any external provider uses qualified, licensed counselors as staff. It's also important that they maintain clinical records that can be shared with the institution once students are on campus.

Telecounseling through text messaging is accessible

One of the most important outcomes of the COVID-19 epidemic is that it is has brought to light the stunning differences in technological capability between rural and urban communities as well as between low- and high-income households. While at home, many college students cannot financially afford broadband, do not have access to broadband, or do not own a home computer. Yet 97% of Gen Z students and 96% of adults ages 18-29 own a smartphone. In fact, about 28% of adults younger than 30 reported that smartphones are their only method to access the internet. Also, 35% of Hispanic households and 24% of black households reported that smartphones are their only way to access the Internet.

Many colleges were already using text-based counseling to students before the coronavirus pandemic. Research shows that texting provides easy accessibility—98% of all text messages are read and responded to within 90 seconds—and students prefer the confidentiality it offers. Eighty-seven percent of text-message therapy clients say they are satisfied with the help that they receive via this format.

Success with telecounseling through text messaging

A meta-analysis of randomized control trials on the use of text messaging to treat depression found that depression symptoms improved with text message therapy. Text messaging had a significant impact on improving patient mood, especially when using CBT techniques. Text messages reminded patients to practice their CBT skills and kept them “on track” with the therapy plan. Clients who received text messages were less likely to drop out of counseling. They also reported feeling more engaged in the process.

Texting is not only a cost-effective means for providing mental health counseling to individual students, but it is also particularly useful in communicating with all students. This helps them feel connected to the broader campus community, develop positive coping skills and navigate negative emotions triggered by pandemic, and know that people care about them.

Learn more

Download our ebook below to learn more about the student mental health crisis as well as recommendations and best practices that you can implement at your institution to better meet student needs.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.

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