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Telemedicine will jump-start overloaded and underfunded UC mental health services

(Nicole Anisgard Parra/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Stephen Wyer

Aug. 25, 2019 9:20 p.m.

Life at UCLA invariably involves a lot of waiting: waiting in traffic around the city, waiting in lines at Bruin Plate, waiting for a machine to open up at the gym.

Yet none of these waits are quite as egregious as waiting five weeks to see a therapist on campus.

For the University of California, adjustments to existing mental health resources are needed. The number of UC students seeking psychological services rose by a stunning 78% over the past 10 years. And last year, the number of students who received some form of counseling was 13% – a record high. Yet the UC’s response to the issue has been far from adequate. Understaffed and underfunded on-campus clinics have resulted in students regularly waiting up to six weeks to see a therapist or counselor.

In response to the inability of clinics to meet demand for psychiatric services, more mental health experts are advocating for alternative approaches to treatment, such as telemedicine. Telemedicine engages patients directly with clinical care via electronic communication and software, primarily through either health-related websites or mobile applications.

Given the inadequacy of campus clinics and the increasing numbers of students who require psychological services, the UC should wholeheartedly endorse telemedicine. In doing so, the UC can reduce stigma around mental health, increase education about mental health literacy for students and make services more accessible – both generally and for minority demographics.

And the way things are going, the UC shouldn’t turn up its nose at the thought of alternative options.

A significant advantage of teletherapy over traditional walk-in treatment is an increase in accessibility – something students desperately need. Being able to access services simply by turning on one’s phone encourages people who might be disinclined to wait for an appointment to seek help.

In doing so, there is a reduction in stigma for seeking mental health services, said Dr. Dara Sorkin, a mental health professional, researcher and associate professor at UC Irvine.

“With telemedicine, there is the potential to reach many more people, who have diverse sociodemographic backgrounds and needs,” Sorkin said.

Such diverse communities include international students, where there may be added stigma around seeking mental health services.

Ashraf Beshay, a former student observer to the UC Regents Health Services Committee, said international students could benefit from the anonymity of teletreatment.

“Telemedicine helps maintain anonymity for students,” Beshay said. “Speaking about mental health issues in an international community may be perceived negatively and tends to be a vulnerable point for many people.”

A further advantage is that online services increase mental health literacy, as such programs help people identify what precisely they’re suffering from, which encourages them to then seek the help they need. Increasing knowledge of the vocabulary regarding different mental health issues can thus reduce stigma around treatment.

“People don’t know what it is they’re struggling with or how they can get help for it,” said Dr. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society. “Having more online resources can help people recognize symptoms they’re having.”

The significant advantages to counseling services offered by telemedicine make this approach something UC students could benefit from significantly.

The need for such programs is acute, given the lackluster state of services in the status quo. And when students struggle with psychological illnesses, it goes far beyond the individual – often affecting the community.

Poor mental health can destroy a student’s academic performance, their productivity in the workplace or their work as athletes. Suicide is not unknown at UC campuses and can be the grim consequence of untreated mental illness.

“Teletreatment resources are a way to meet the need for resources before these problems become even more severe,” Padilla-Frausto said.

Of course, accessibility doesn’t just mean having resources – it means students know they are there.

Unfortunately, it seems the UC hasn’t learned that yet.

“If UC campuses continue to pursue teletreatment resources, such efforts will need to coincide with coordinated outreach plans to ensure students who could benefit from these services are informed about their availability,” said UC Regent Hayley Weddle.

Beshay pointed to the Morneau Shepell Student Support Programs for international students, which have a variety of online resources available. While well-intentioned, the programs were created without input from international students and have not been advertised.

Beshay said that, not surprisingly, the programs have had a minimal impact.

“Administrators need to encourage and work with students to implement better advertising techniques that shows student feedback,” Beshay said.

As teletreatment resources become more available to students, this will take pressure off Counseling and Psychological Services as well as lowering costs from clinical admissions. And while telemedicine won’t replace in-person visits, professionals such as Dr. Sorkin agree that in conjunction with regular therapy, these resources could improve the way clinics such as CAPS function.

“(Telemedicine) could offer revolutionary ways for augmenting current service models,” Sorkin said.

Granted, the UC has already taken some steps in the right direction on this issue. Just this last year, all UC campuses started implementing LiveHealth Online, a program run through Anthem Blue Cross. The UC is also launching a program called Therapy Assistance Online, which offers courses educating students about mental health issues given their particular needs.

Such efforts should be lauded. Nonetheless, it’s unclear whether UCs are doing enough to raise awareness about such resources. The launching of programs such as LiveHealth and TAO will only be effective in conjunction with awareness programs to break stigma around seeking these services.

And as of now, it’s not nearly enough.

That the current system is broken is hardly in dispute. Clinical admissions are continuing to rise and UC clinics are ill-equipped to assist their struggling students.

And while telemedicine may be no silver bullet, the stakes are far too high for the UC to play the waiting game with mental health any longer.

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Stephen Wyer
Wyer is a news contributor.
Wyer is a news contributor.
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