Colleges Look to Outside Behavioral Health Contractors to Meet Worsening Supply-and-Demand Issue

College can be a time of tremendous stress and turmoil for students. As a result, university health programs are struggling to keep up with the demand for services, particularly of the mental health variety.

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 outside providers to collaborate with universities to provide wrap-around services and cater to a specific patient population.

This trend started during the COVID-19 pandemic but has continued in line with student needs.

“You have a big supply-and-demand issue when it comes to access to therapists and psychiatric prescribers on college campuses,” Ed Gaussen, co-founder and CEO of Mantra Health, told Behavioral Health Business. “So many campuses around the nation today have counseling and health centers on campus. And what’s happening there is that a lot of them are just seeing too much demand, and waitlists are getting long. Ultimately, they have to refer students out in the community.”

But even in those instances, students still see wait times that can be several weeks, Gaussen added.

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

Roughly 33% of college students screened positive for anxiety, and 44% screened positive for depression, according to a 2022 Health Minds Survey.

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

Meeting 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 campus and nontraditional student options means many students spend less time on campus. A new report from experience management company Qualtrics found that over half of students were not satisfied with the current campus offerings.

This could be a prime opportunity for companies using a virtual-first model to address 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 a student is not the same everywhere. We have traditional students. We work with large online institutions. We have a lot of graduate programs. [There are] community colleges, and we’re able to support all of them and their needs.”

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

In addition to just filling the counseling demand, outside providers’ larger pool of therapists may be positioned to help students from diverse backgrounds. Qualtrics found a large percentage of students faced discrimination on campus.

“About a third of students say they’ve been discriminated against at their campus,” Dr. Katie Johnson, senior research manager for education at Qualtrics, told BHB. “This was much higher for students of certain demographic backgrounds. These things can all impact mental health.”

Still, finding the suitable modality to reach a diverse group of students can be difficult for providers.

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

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

Contracting with colleges

While some colleges are eager to partner with outside behavioral health providers, each agreement looks different.

As part of Mantra’s contracts, universities pay for their services.

“We have found that most colleges and universities have figured out a robust way to include either a mental health or wellness fee, and work with donors,” Gaussen said. “Whether it’s alumni, nonprofits, to get additional donations to support mental health on campus, or quite frankly, getting support directly from the government.”

Mantra has two models: capacity expansion and Whole-Campus Care. Gaussen said that Whole Campus Care is based on a per-student per-year model.

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

Beyond providing care, many of these partnerships include awareness campaigns, a notoriously tricky part of engaging students, particularly at nontraditional or community colleges.

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

“When a school partners with Uwill, we give them an entire marketing kit that they can then use to communicate with their students,” Downing said. “We feel it’s almost like a multi-pronged approach. ​​We provide posters. We provide creative design for lawn signs. We provide flyers. We live in this digital age, but sometimes the posters, flyers and old-school physical things get students’ attention. But we also feel engaging with other communities, or campus groups, is really important.”

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