Columbia Health expands with more staff, new telehealth partnership after student demands for better mental healthcare

Columbia Health has expanded its Counseling and Psychological Services through an increase in full-time staff and a new partnership with a virtual mental health clinic that services college students following years of criticism of the office’s long appointment wait times and shortage of providers.

In an interview with Spectator, Melanie Bernitz, senior vice president of Columbia Health, and Richard Eichler, the associate vice president of CPS, said that CPS has expanded their partner telehealth agency Mantra Health’s capacity by 60 percent. Nine new staff positions have also been filled over the past year and CPS, which only serves students from the Morningside and Manhattanville campuses, is now able to provide treatment in 17 languages.

“We have limited space. … We were already bursting at the seams in terms of space,” Bernitz said. “Richard and I looked at ‘Okay, how can we look at outside resources that don’t impact our on-campus space?’”

Both Columbia College Student Council President Tejasri Vijayakumar, CC ’24, and Engineering Student Council President HaYoung Jin, SEAS ’25, said the CPS expansion is a step in the right direction in terms of improving mental health on campus.

“People are starting to see more of a focus on it, which is good for us because getting awareness into [CPS] is the foot in the door toward making change,” Jin said.

The Mental Health Collaborative—a committee that connects student councils with CPS to provide a space for student representatives to give feedback—reconvened in the last academic year because of student complaints regarding increased need for mental health resources following a return to on-campus learning during the pandemic.

“We had a huge uptick in demand—unprecedented—when students came flooding back in part because of the effects of the pandemic isolation,” Eichler said. “You can imagine how that had negative consequences for people, so we had a real uptick and there was a period where the demand was really exceeding our capacity more than we would have liked. But we expected, and it’s been true, that it would level off somewhat.”

In March, more than 1,700 students, faculty, and affiliates signed a petition titled “Demand Better Mental Health Support at Columbia University.” It called for an increase in the number of mental healthcare providers on campus, changes to the frequency of required check-ins with staff members from every two weeks to every week, a decrease in wait times for appointments, and an increase in off-campus resources such as telehealth therapy.

[Read more: More than 1,700 sign petition calling for improved mental health services]

Eichler called the timing of the petition “ironic” because, he said, CPS’s expansion project was already underway at the time. He said plans for expansion began in spring 2022, before the student petition was written.

“Periodically we take a look at our resources and the demand for services and we try to be proactive, and try to anticipate and meet demand,” Eichler said.

As a telehealth service geared specifically toward colleges and universities, Mantra offers a range of services including 24/7 crisis support, outpatient programs, psychiatry, therapy, wellness coaching, self-care programs, and support communities. Partnerships with Mantra are customizable, and Columbia has chosen to take advantage of its talk therapy.

Eichler and Bernitz said the decision to use Mantra stemmed from students’ demands and CPS’s goal of taking proactive steps to improve mental health resources on campus in order to support more students in the long run.

“It was a very intentional, proactive response. … We looked at every element of the petition, we see the things that we need to address and where there are potential opportunities, or we are always trying to be proactive and intentional,” Bernitz said. “It’s not sticking a band-aid on something, but it’s really putting something in place that is sustainable.”

Eichler said that before the pandemic, he was wary of online mental health services, but he has become more confident in telehealth and its ability to increase access for students who live off-campus. CPS specifically chose to work with Mantra after looking at what other universities were doing to fulfill the need for greater mental healthcare access with the return to on-campus learning, according to Eichler. Columbia is the second school in the Ivy League to partner with Mantra, following Cornell University.

Since its implementation, Eichler said Mantra has helped alleviate the previously long wait times for appointments.

“The unacceptable waits that had developed in the fall dissipated,” Eichler said. “We have been so happy with Mantra that we’ve increased their availability by 60 percent this fall.”

According to Bernitz, all recent CPS expansion projects remain covered for students by Columbia’s health fee. A new feature of the healthcare plan includes expanded coverage of off-campus mental healthcare. The first 10 off-campus therapy visits through Columbia’s health insurance plan will not require a co-payment, and this plan resets annually.

“That is removal of a huge barrier for students who are accessing care off campus,” Bernitz said. “As we always say, with therapy, like a pair of shoes, sometimes the first pair don’t fit, so you may want to try someone else, and now students aren’t worried about having spent those co-pay dollars on a fit.”

Another change for students seeking mental healthcare with their student health insurance plan is expansion of Columbia’s custom Behavioral Health Network, according to Bernitz and Eichler. The BHN is a network of 300 mental health professionals and therapists that accept reimbursement or insurance from Columbia’s student health insurance plan, in which 24,000 students are enrolled. Columbia began building this network over 20 years ago.

Students’ demands included an increase to staff size to ameliorate wait times. Eichler and Bernitz said that once a CPS budget proposal is approved, CPS is allowed to start hiring new staff, but bringing in qualified workers is not always that simple. Eichler explained that in 2022, the approved budget had increased to allow CPS to hire nine staff members.

CPS searched for candidates to fill vacancies for four different jobs: a social worker, a postdoctoral fellow, a director of operations, and psychologists. While the positions are all filled now, Eichler and Bernitz said that the process took time because CPS was diligent about the quality of the new staff members.

“We are very selective in terms of who we hire in a number of areas,” Bernitz said. “Richard has an incredibly thorough screening and interview process and, as I said, really only takes top-tier candidates.”

When explaining the hiring process, Eichler emphasized the importance of diversity in candidates. Eichler said the entire staff identified as white and heterosexual when he became the director of CPS in 1992. Today, 60 percent of the CPS staff are people of color and “quite a few” are LGBTQ, according to Eichler.

“One of the things that I always talk about is we can do treatment in 17 languages. That is extraordinarily unusual, and that reflects the diversity of the staff because, of course, it’s not just race and this university or sexual preferences or gender identity. It’s also people’s country of origin,” Eichler said.

Vijayakumar said she is hopeful about the way CPS’s changes will benefit student access to healthcare on campus.

“There’s always more to be done,” Vijayakumar said. “But I think that the really comprehensive way that they’ve expanded CPS and Columbia Health is definitely going to look like more resources and shorter wait times and more direct access for students to just receive what they want.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the new partnership between CPS and Mantra Health has allowed a 60 percent increase in appointments. In fact, CPS increased Mantra Health’s capacity by 60 percent. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that nine staff positions at CPS have been filled over the past two years; in fact, those nine positions have been filled in the past year. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mantra Health provides Columbia students with wellness coaching. In fact, it provides talk therapy. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the CPS expansion projects are covered by the Columbia health insurance plan; in fact, they are covered for students by the Columbia Health fee. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Columbia’s custom Behavioral Health Network was new; the network is in fact not new, though it is expanding, and the professionals in the network accept reimbursement or insurance from the Columbia health insurance plan. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the budget for nine new staff members at CPS was approved in 2020; in fact it was approved in 2022. A previous version of this article stated that Mantra Health offers wellness coaching; Columbia Health offers wellness coaching separate from Mantra Health. Spectator regrets these errors.

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