Telehealth doesn’t fix the need for in-person counseling, Connecticut college workers say

by Jeremy

Dive Brief: 

  • Some of Connecticut’s public college system employees say its new contract with a telehealth provider does not address students’ need for more in-person counseling services.
  • The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system entered a two-year contract costing about $660,000 annually in federal coronavirus relief funds to offer students telehealth counseling services. Still, some campus employees expressed displeasure this week with the agreement.
  • Employees stressed the need to strengthen in-person services during a virtual press conference hosted Tuesday by two labor unions, the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges and the American Federation of Teachers.
  • Telehealth

Dive Insight: 

The pushback may fit into a time-tested mold of labor organizers objecting to outsourcing. But it comes against the backdrop of significant growth in campus telehealth services. It raises questions about how best to serve students when they need remote mental health services outside regular hours.

CSCU announced in late August it had forged a partnership with TimelyMD, a Texas-based telehealth company that has been inking new contracts with colleges during the pandemic. The system’s community college students will receive various services through the deal, including unlimited health consultations, on-demand mental health support, and a dozen 50-minute counseling sessions per year starting later this semester. Access to health services — particularly mental health services — has long been a major challenge for too many community college students,” Terrence Cheng, the system’s president, said in the announcement. “This is a major expansion of mental health services, and it will make the college experience more manageable for the students we serve.”

But some campus workers are saying the contract isn’t enough to address students’ mental health needs. Lisa Slade, director of counseling and wellness at Housatonic Community College, said the system should build more vital in-person services. Counselors need the system to provide up-to-date case management software, she said. Slade also said the system’s community colleges are not following an industry standard to have at least one licensed mental health counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

“To put that type of investment in outsourcing a mental health program outside of our state, outside of our community, outside of our campuses without securing and laying a strong foundation for the already-existing counseling programs was disturbing,” Slade said during the news conference.

The system’s community colleges do not have staff providing ongoing, long-term mental health counseling, which system spokesperson Leigh Appleby said in an email. Instead, they have brief intervention and crisis counseling and then refer students to local community resources.

However, Appleby said the contract with TimelyMD is just one part of CSCU’s overall strategy to bolster mental health services. It’s also meant to recognize that face-to-face services may be interrupted as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and provides students with services after typical business hours and on weekends.

“CSCU acknowledges the tremendous work (of) our staff and remains committed to an on-ground presence, but we must respond to the overwhelming need right now,” Appleby said.

Connecticut’s public colleges are far from the only higher education institutions newly partnering with mental telehealth providers. Companies like TimelyMD have seen their college clientele balloon.

TimelyMD contracts with more than 120 colleges and universities, up from around 15 campuses before the pandemic, said Alan Dennington, the company’s co-founder and chief medical officer. And another provider, UWill, recently said its college client base had tripled from 10 to 30 since the pandemic began.

“Our goal isn’t to replace in-person services,” Dennington said, but to provide students with 24/7 access to mental health care. According to the company, around three-fourths of community college students who used TimelyMD for mental health support said they wouldn’t have done anything had it not been available.

But some mental health experts say these trends are worrisome, arguing that outside providers don’t understand the dynamics of particular campuses and the needs of college students.

TimelyMD works with clients to understand what resources are available. Its providers also share client records with on-campus counselors to ensure students receive the “right level of care,” Dennington said.

Still, Slade of Housatonic Community College told Higher Ed Dive that telehealth services aren’t going to cut it to support students. Students want to relate to someone, and they want to talk to someone that looks like them, that lives in the same community as them and who understands the challenges that they face  in this area,” Slade said

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