The rise of online therapy services on college campuses 

To meet their campus communities’ demand for mental health support, colleges have been reaching out to virtual teletherapy vendors, including BetterMynd, Mantra Health, Uwill, and TimelyCare, that supplement on-campus counseling services, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. These companies serve millions of students at over 700 campuses and have changed how colleges offer mental health services, university officials say.

“Students aren’t necessarily comparing us to a visit in their doctor’s office,” Becky Laman, chief strategy officer at TimelyCare, tells the Chronicle. “They access health care differently than 10 years ago, than five years ago, so they’re comparing us to an experience on Instagram or Snapchat, where they’re in control.”

Meeting students’ need for mental health support

College counseling services were overextended before COVID-19 hit, but demand surged as students’ mental health worsened during the pandemic. Universities partnered with virtual mental health services so that students could communicate virtually with a therapist through video calls when in-person counseling was unavailable. When students returned to campus, schools continued to rely on teletherapy companies to supplement existing university services, as counseling centers struggled to meet demand for in-person appointments. 

While some observers have questioned the quality, privacy, and efficacy of virtual therapy, early data indicate that telehealth mental health services are as effective as in-person therapy for most situations. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, also applies to teletherapy vendors, so that information students give providers can be shared only with other licensed clinicians.

As stigmas surrounding mental health have eased, students have become more willing to seek help. According to a 2022-23 Healthy Minds Study, a total of 57% of college students reported somewhat agreeing, agreeing, or strongly agreeing that they had needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the last 12 months.

“What on-campus resources can provide is completely unique and really can never be duplicated by an external provider,” David Walden, counseling director at Hamilton College, tells the Chronicle. “At the same time, we can’t do it all alone.”

Investing in teletherapy

Universities pay for telehealth services so that students can access them at no extra cost, with the price varying based on the size of a college’s student population and the number of sessions and services it wants to purchase. If students appear to be at risk during a virtual therapy call, vendors can coordinate with campus support without disconnecting from the student.

Teletherapy vendors offer a wide range of online services and mobile apps that help students schedule visits around their work or caretaking responsibilities so they can see counselors even outside typical business hours. They offer on-demand call centers, wellness coaching, and peer-support groups, which students typically don’t have to pay for out of pocket. The vendors also hire hundreds of independent contractors to work with students, with the result that students may have access to counselors from diverse backgrounds and receive more inclusive support. 

“The more you can offer variety, the more you’re going to be able to reach a larger group of people,” says Nance Roy, chief clinical officer at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with secondary and postsecondary schools to support students’ mental health. 

Hundreds of colleges are now using teletherapy vendors and are renewing their contracts to ensure students feel they have the support they need, both on-campus and online. At Georgetown University, students, faculty, and staff have free, 24/7 access to counselors and psychiatrists virtually through HoyaWell, a free mental health service offered in partnership with TimelyCare, which expands existing on-campus mental health resources.

Some college teletherapy programs are operating at a state level. In May 2023, New Jersey announced a “first-in-the-nation partnership” with UWill that provides free virtual mental health services to students at 44 higher education institutions in the state. That partnership has been recently extended to 2025. As of Jan. 10, more than 7,600 students were registered with the program and nearly 20,000 total sessions had been scheduled. 

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