Editor’s Note: It’s officially March, so we are marching into solutions. Yes, we’re aware of how lame that pun is! We also think it’s lame that a lot of journalism likes to describe everything that’s wrong with the world without showing data-driven examples of solutions that work! We don’t accept that, so this month we are marching (oof, there it is again) into solutions. We’ll be taking issues/problems from the Nola community and doing the research to find solutions that have proven to work! It’s solution journalism, and we’re continuing with mental health blockades that we can remove if we work together!
Part I: The Issue
Due to Covid causing anxiety, isolation, and paranoia among Tulane students coupled with the high demand for therapists, as the stigma around mental health issues has started to ease, more college students are seeking the needed support of counseling more than ever before. Mental health significantly affects college students’ lives, and Tulane University is struggling with assisting these students.
One’s mental health determines the decisions they may make, their general well-being, and their emotional as well as physical health. When in college, some students may have issues with the inability to manage stress and feelings of exhaustion along with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, homesickness, and loneliness. Students are forced to navigate strenuous experiences and novel relationships on their own. While it may seem that early psychiatric disorders should be resolved by the start of college, about 75% of psychiatric disorders arise by age 25.
Before the Covid pandemic struck colleges across the country, almost 73% of students experienced some type of mental health crisis, which is associated with a lower GPA and a higher probability of dropping out. Once colleges had to move to virtual learning, classes no longer held that collaborative and motivational factor, inflicting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Returning in person after many months, students were once again introduced to an unfamiliar environment with new rules that they had to follow. With Covid continuing to affect and control our lives, students need help. Free therapy on campuses is more critical than ever, as the demand for counseling services has grown at least 5 times faster than average student enrollment. Aware of this information, it is crucial that colleges provide mental health services and accommodations for their student body.
Although students are constantly reporting Covid challenges they have faced, they are not typically utilizing on-campus facilities. While Tulane has free mental health services offered to all students, students still do not seek help. In the past, mental health was a highly stigmatized topic that has begun to ease. While psychiatric disorders are extremely common among students, they may fear that they would be judged and viewed differently from their peers. Also, students may not know where to access the counseling or if they are eligible for it. Even if students are aware of the counseling center, a Student Voice survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse indicated that 63% of students of those who have poor mental health would grade their college’s response to student mental health and wellness services as a C or lower, and only 15% would engage with college-offered counseling. Even though these services exist, students may feel that these general counseling services are not genuine.
At Tulane, services that are offered include the counseling center as well as CAPs, which provide individual therapy (with 12 sessions), group discussions, self-help tools, and workshops.
These services are only available during certain hours, have long wait times, and CAPs require you to call for an appointment which can be anxiety-provoking. Students must wait in a public waiting room before their appointments, which as a college student with anxiety, can be embarrassing. I have had my own negative experience with CAPs as I had to wait two weeks for the first available session, got paired with a male therapist, and felt too uncomfortable about being there and left before it began.
There is a tremendous lack of services and ratio of certified counselors to the student body at Tulane. In Spring of 2021, more than a dozen counseling staff resigned from Campus Health, and turnover accelerated while caseloads skyrocketed due to Covid. Currently, Tulane counseling staff has a ratio of 1,344.7 students: 1 counselor (if every student used their tuition-paid-for services) and only 12 clinicians providing care. Recently, a Tulane counseling staff member came forward and explained how she was not able to fulfill her ethical duty to her patients because her schedule was too full to meet with every student at the frequency they needed while another explained how her caseload consisted of over 40 students. Tulane does not have a psychiatrist for students, and employees have described their fears of this issue as worsening. Mental health challenges amid the Covid pandemic are considered a national emergency, and while Tulane is staffed with skilled and trained professionals that know how to deal with college students, they do not have enough time to assist every student in need (causing a significant wait time which defeats the purpose of reaching out to a counselor for relevant and timely advice). Even though Tulane amid the pandemic expanded its counseling services to Zoom, it just is not enough.
Part II: The Solution
While teletherapy is a great option, a therapist needs to be licensed in the state where they help people. Meaning, that throughout all the times that Tulane students have been evacuated, whether this is due to Covid, Hurricane Ida, or school breaks, students would find themselves unable to speak to the counselor they have been working with while traveling back and forth. While Tulane has traditionally done a great job at having campus counseling centers; for the most part, they are not at all diverse or representative of the student body. If every student wanted to use the services, it would be unlikely that the 12 person staff would be able to handle the demand.
Michael London, a Boston-based entrepreneur recognized this national issue on college campuses and developed a technology to provide a secure platform that offers the modalities of teletherapy, including video calls, phone calls, chats, and messages. Today, mental health professionals are extremely busy, and the process of acquiring one through a referral/ insurance is very slow. During our interview, Michael explained how he created Uwill, an innovative platform that links students to a licensed mental health professional within 24 hours of the request, and partners with universities providing free services to students. Michael’s vision for the company is that “there will always be a need for the traditional counseling on campus. It is very good and important, but it is not realistic for that group to meet all the needs of students as mental health becomes more commonplace in society. It is impossible for campus counseling to have the proper diversity within the staff as well as the availability when a student has a need, for this to be a forever solution.” Uwill allows students to be “matched” to five different professionals within their state according to their needs and requests (for example, I could say I want to talk to someone who has availability between 4-6 tomorrow, is female, is Jewish, speaks Spanish, who understands gender issues, practices meditation, and knows how to deal with anxiety). After reading the bios of each of the professionals listed, the student can request a specific therapist. Therapists on the platform give certain hours during the week to Uwill, which allows students to find a professional during the time periods they want, as Michael says, “the when for the student is more important than anything else”. The student-focused “Umatch” platform also allows students to rate the therapists. Along with “Umatch”, Uwill also includes “Uhelp” (a 24-hour suicide hotline), “Upeer” (which includes virtual group mind/ health events including yoga, meditation, lifestyle workshops, and more), and “Ucollaborate” (how information is legally and safely shared with the university). Uwill believes campus counseling should see the platform as an extension of their existing team and serve the students who are not utilizing the on-campus resources (not taking away from the campus professional’s clientele).
As the stigma around mental health issues has started to dissipate, the demand for counseling services has made waitlists for campus-based counseling unsurprising and popular. Colleges like Tulane are not able to attend to this demand, therefore Uwill is a complementary, cost-effective solution. Through Uwill research, it is evident that students have varying needs which require specific types of therapy and professionals with a wide range of skill sets. With just a few people on the counseling staff for a university of about 10,000 students, there is no possible way to do so. Through Uwill, a student has the power of choice and is provided with the “edge to get mentally healthy that they don’t have”, according to Michael.
Without meeting with a counselor in person, a limitation of Uwill would be that a professional will not be able to offer a face-to-face in-person connection to the student. Also, if the student decides that they just want to chat with a therapist, the therapist over the phone will not be able to see the face of the student and will not be able to articulate emotion. But, on the flip side, a student who reaches out to a professional over text may not be comfortable reaching out in any other medium, and Uwill will potentially have provided them with exactly what they needed.
Although Uwill just began offering services two years ago, it has partnered with colleges all over the country and 26 new schools in the past year. The pandemic has completely changed the way that we do things and relate to others, and due to the pressures of college, there has been a great momentum toward participating in beneficial mental health practices. Boston College, which is a private school of about 9,500 students, implemented Uwill this past year and has seen almost 5% of their students already access it (about 500 students who would not have been able to receive help from their on-campus services). At schools like UMaryland, UC Santa Barbara, UNC, Fairfield, and the UMass system, as high as 15% of the student body has begun to utilize Uwill. While some students may prefer to use on-campus services, others may prefer Uwill, solving both groups’ needs (as well as alleviating some of the work of the on-campus professionals). This solution is not expensive for the school, but the hardest part, according to Michael, is that the college administration needs to recognize that outsourcing counseling services would assist the community that is underserved. If these students are not taken care of and are receiving poor treatment for their anxiety, depression, etc., then they will potentially develop long-term significant mental health issues.
Part III: The Implementation
Tulane is in dire need of Uwill. The demand for counseling on Tulane’s campus outweighs the ability of the staff to attend to all these students. An online professional that is compatible with the student based on their matched characteristics will be able to relate to the student and make them feel comfortable to discuss topics that they may fear talking about. It alleviates the need to walk into a public building and allows counseling sessions to take place in the privacy of the student’s room.
Therapy is more mainstream than it has ever been, and it is much easier to meet with someone over the phone than in person and alleviates the risk of spreading/ getting Covid. As Michael explained, “there are two types of colleges that come to Uwill: one that recognizes that this needs to be dealt with and wants to be proactive, and the second is we just had another tragedy on campus, students are protesting, parents are furious, and we need to fix this issue as soon as possible.”
As Tulane is one of the most popular and prestigious universities in the country, they must also be at the forefront of prioritizing mental health for their students. They can ensure this by hiring a third-party company to provide an extra hand with counseling. Tulane has the opportunity to pioneer a mental health movement since US News’ Best Colleges 2022 edition ranked Tulane No. 42 among the nation’s top National Universities list, No. 29 among national private universities, and No. 34 among the list of Most Innovative Schools. Tulane is also placed in the Princeton Review Best 387 Colleges: 2022 edition as having the happiest students. For Tulane’s students to be the “happiest” then they must also be healthy mentally, which requires them to provide their students with effective and tech-savvy mental health services.
With this new solution, the most important determinant of its success would be how it is promoted. If the Uwill platform comes to Tulane, it would need to be marketed across organizations, groups, student government, Greek life, professional fraternities, sports, academic groups, and more. The outreach and the way that the message of the program would be marketed across the campus would be crucial to its acceptance and usage by the students. As our age relies on technology and connecting over the internet, Uwill will need a presence on social media platforms run by Tulane students including Instagram (@Tulaneu, @Tulaneusg, and @Tulanehullabaloo), Twitter (@TulaneAthletics and @Tulanehull), and TikTok (@Onlyattulane) as well as other outlets. Once the program is recognized as a mainstream free service supported by other students and faculty, then the transition to implementing this will be smooth. As a leader in business, public health, law, liberal arts, and entrepreneurship, Tulane has an incredible opportunity to be a leader in the promotion of mental health and counseling services; my hope is to one day have the ability to utilize these programs that will aid me in becoming a better version of myself, and one that is strong and happy mentally.
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