Perspective: Filling the Mental Health Gaps in Universities with Telemedicine by Amy Otto

amy otto university mental health


The start of the school year always brings back a rush of memories – for better or worse. The brightly colored backpacks and new outfits always smell of hope and potential as parents drop their kids off for their first day of school or move their children into their dorm room to begin their college adventure. As a mother of two grown children, I can relate to the rush of emotions felt by all these parents, and it never fails to bring back one “start of the school-year” memory that I wish I could erase.

In her second year of college, my daughter was selected to be a Resident Assistant (R.A.). The afternoon I moved her into the dorms, she approached me after completing a morning training session. She looked exhausted and in despair after finishing the first half of the required Suicide Prevention Training. With tear-filled eyes, she shared with me the growing number of suicides on campus and that one of her biggest fears was for one of her residents to commit suicide on her watch.

Her words hung heavy in the air. As the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 15-24, the conversation was heartbreaking. I immediately wanted to transport her back to more innocent times in grade school where the biggest concern was not wanting to leave her new school supplies in her desk.  

My daughter went on to explain the number of students who struggled with depression and anxiety. Coupled with the stress of being miles away from the comfort and security of home, many students who graduated at the top of their high school class were suddenly receiving their first “C” on an exam. Worse, when students reached out for support and guidance from the counseling center, they were told there was a wait period of over two weeks just to see a mental health professional on campus.

How is it that universities spend billions of dollars on their athletic programs, yet keep the mental health resources underfunded? With all the additional fees above college tuition, like athletic fees, technology fees, and recreation fees, why is mental health for all students not a higher priority? Especially now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has made on the mental health of students across the country.

The status of mental health on college campuses today

Six years after my daughter’s college experience, the COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated the mental health crisis. On top of the pandemic, young adults are worried about social injustice, political unrest, isolation and losing family members, and much more. College is supposed to be a time for interactions and growing friendships, but now, relationships are being carried out electronically over Snapchat, Instagram, and other online platforms that will never replace the friendships made over pizza and cold beer.

Currently, there are 17.5 million university students in the United States. Of those, over 55% reported high levels of anxiety and depression. Isolation is leading to deleterious consequences with incoming freshmen who are mentally exhausted from the past 18 months of the pandemic. In fact, a CDC report from the early months of 2021 showed that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts rose more than 50% for female teenagers.

I wish I knew of a magic button we could push to make everything better, but I don’t. However, I do know that a robust mental health strategy will help address the mental health crisis that is rapidly growing on campuses across the country.

Addressing the growing mental health crisis on college campuses

College campuses can address the growing mental health crisis in several ways. For instance, training incoming students to identify the signs that someone is struggling and in need of assistance can increase awareness and provide an outlet for discussing issues with their peers.

Additionally, implementing telepsychiatry programs with licensed clinical social workers and psychiatrists will reduce wait times and get students the help they desperately need. After all, the college-aged demographic is accustomed to Zoom and video communication that they may be even more comfortable with a video visit than an in-person visit. Attaching an affordable mental health and wellness fee to tuitions would be an investment in the student population and lead to higher student retention and overall well-being for our future leaders.

While the memory of six years prior on that hot August day remains in my head, I know that I can use my voice to spread the message around the importance of mental health during these uncertain times. By encouraging others to get professional help with readily available resources, we can work together towards decreasing the impact COVID-19 has made on the mental health of our students. We need to treat mental illness like any other illness or healthcare emergency.

After all, if your friend or family member had a broken leg, you would get them the appropriate care, right?

VirtualMed Staff wants to help. With customized telepsychiatry programs for universities, clinics, hospitals, and employers, we provide the best outcomes by connecting the best clinicians with patients. Reach out today and let’s get started.