Colleges are turning to external behavioral health contractors to address growing supply and demand problem

College can be a time of enormous stress and turmoil for students. As a result, academic health programs struggle to meet the demand for services, especially mental health.

Students are often unaware of the resources available on campus, and even when they seek help, they face long wait times to see a mental health clinician. This need could be an opportunity for external providers to collaborate with universities to provide comprehensive services and meet the needs of a specific patient population.

This trend began during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has continued based on student needs.

“You have a big supply and demand problem when it comes to access to psychiatric therapists and prescribers on college campuses,” Ed Gaussen, co-founder and CEO of Mantra Health, told Behavioral Health Business. “Today, many campuses across the country have on-campus counseling and health centers. And what’s happening there is that a lot of them are just seeing too much demand, and the waiting lists are getting longer. Ultimately, they have to send the students back to the community.

But even then, students still see wait times that can be weeks, Gaussen added.

Mantra Health is a virtual behavioral health provider that partners with higher education institutions. Founded in 2018, it has raised just over $34 million in funding. It has partnerships with over 100 institutions. Its Whole Campus Care offering offers 24/7 teletherapy, telepsychiatry and emotional support.

According to a 2022 Health Minds Survey, approximately 33% of college students tested positive for anxiety and 44% tested positive for depression.

But staffing behavioral health providers remains an issue for colleges. About 60% of college counseling centers report staff turnover in the past year, according to the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors.

Meet the diverse needs of students

Shortages can be even worse when it comes to rural campuses with fewer options for referral partners and a lack of transportation options for students to get to appointments, Gaussen noted.

Additionally, the growing number of virtual campuses and non-traditional student options means many students are spending less time on campus. A new report from experience management firm Qualtrics has found that more than half of students are unhappy with current campus offerings.

This could be a great opportunity for companies using a virtual first model to meet these needs.

“A lot of our graduate students and our adult learners need different things,” Kelly Downing, vice president of marketing at Uwill, told BHB. “They need all modalities of teletherapy, video, phone, chat and messaging. Our community therapists understand that a student is not the same everywhere. We have traditional students. We work with major online institutions. We have a lot of graduate programs. [There are] community colleges, and we are able to support them all and meet their needs.

Uwill was founded in 2020 and now works with over 150 colleges across the United States, including three tribal colleges. Earlier this month, the company announced a $30 million funding round, bringing the company’s total raise to around $35 million.

In addition to simply responding to the request for advice, the largest number of therapists from external providers can be positioned to help students from diverse backgrounds. Qualtrics found that a high percentage of students experienced discrimination on campus.

“About a third of students say they have experienced discrimination on campus,” Dr. Katie Johnson, senior research manager for education at Qualtrics, told BHB. “It was much higher for students from certain demographic backgrounds. These things can all impact mental health.

Yet finding the right modality to reach a diverse group of students can be challenging for providers.

“When you talk about campuses with historically marginalized populations, there’s a lot of stigma around access to mental health care in some cultures in this country,” Gaussen said. “And we tend to think the stigma has been eradicated at this point. But that tends not to be true with people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse populations, which is what we tend to see.

Uwilll and Mantra note that using virtual modalities has helped them reach students struggling with stigma.

Contracting with colleges

While some colleges are keen to partner with external behavioral health providers, every deal is different.

Under Mantra contracts, universities pay for their services.

“We’ve found that most colleges and universities have found a solid way to include mental health or wellness fees and work with donors,” Gaussen said. “Whether it’s alumni, nonprofits, getting extra donations to support mental health on campus, or quite frankly, getting support directly from the government.”

Mantra offers two models: capacity expansion and campus-wide care. Gaussen said Whole Campus Care is based on a per-student-per-year model.

Similarly, Downing said Uwill also offers flexible partnership models with universities, but students don’t have to pay for the services. Universities choose if they want to have unlimited access. They can also select services like teletherapy or mental wellness solutions.

Beyond caregiving, many of these partnerships include outreach campaigns, a notoriously tricky part of student engagement, especially at non-traditional or community colleges.

In fact, 32% of college students reported a lack of awareness about the availability of mental health services, according to Qualtrics.

“When a school partners with Uwill, we give them a comprehensive marketing kit which they can then use to communicate with their students,” Downing said. “We think it’s almost like a multi-pronged approach. We provide posters. We provide creative design for lawn signs. We provide flyers. We live in the digital age, but sometimes old-school posters, flyers, and physical objects catch students’ attention. But we also think it’s really important to engage with other campus communities or groups.

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