Technological solutions for improving access to mental health support for K-12 students during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond

Expert Insight

Technological solutions for improving access to mental health support for K-12 students during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond

As the outbreak of coronavirus has led to an increasing number of school closures, district and independent school leaders must determine how to adjust their counseling and mental health services to best support the safety and wellbeing of their school community.

Given that individuals with preexisting mental health conditions are at increased risk for exacerbated symptoms during this stressful time, the following steps should be taken to safeguard the well-being and safety of students.

Post any updates to services on the district homepage, counseling center webpage, and any specific channels dedicated to COVID-19 communications. Clearly indicate the steps counselors will take to connect with students and families who receive services to discuss any temporary alternatives and indicate the timeframe in which those steps will be taken.

At minimum, route people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, and The Trevor Project, as well as any hospitals and other crisis providers in your local area.

While extensive counseling cannot be offered via telephone, schools are implementing phone consultations and check-ins to ensure students and families know how to connect with the alternative supports that they need. Work with local and regional providers to understand any tele-therapy or online mental health services they already offer so you can direct families to these resources, and find additional advice here on access to prescribed medications during COVID-19.

What greater role can technology play in mental health support?

As we grapple with widespread school closures, disruptions to a number of services, and increased strain on the healthcare system, it is critical that schools evaluate technological solutions that help overcome logistical barriers and expand access to mental health support.

Here are two trends from institutions implementing technology-enabled mental health support.

1. Mobile apps and AI-powered mental health support

Over the past few years, dozens of apps have appeared to help people with their mental health. These apps range from simple life coaching to virtual chatbots providing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to applications that can match you to a licensed therapist on demand.

There is a lack of independent research on the efficacy of these applications, but several of them have been created by researchers from leading universities and are based on well-researched interventions like CBT. 

In many cases, these apps provide advantages over traditional interventions. Some use “gamification” techniques to keep users engaged, and users often report that they prefer the discrete, “judgment-free” nature of support through technology.

Support via apps and chatbots is typically not intended to be a substitute for therapy services for high-need students, and may not be appropriate for younger children. But even as a frontier practice, these solutions are being adopted by a growing number of schools and universities to strengthen the portfolio of scalable supports that they can provide. Schools can also consider using these tools, many of which are free or low cost, to support the mental health of teachers, staff, and parents.

2. Enabling virtual access to clinical providers through traditional teletherapy

Traditional teletherapy—when a provider delivers services to an individual virtually through videoconferencing—has been popular in the healthcare industry since the early 2000s. There is a large body of literature outlining the benefits of telemedicine as an effective way to increase access to healthcare without compromising quality.

Recent research examining teletherapy in education settings, specifically, finds that teletherapy is an effective and sustainable approach to care, with evidence that outcomes are comparable to in-person delivery.

Most importantly, teletherapy is more efficient. Providers are able to serve a greater number of students, while also lowering the barriers that prevent many students from successfully utilizing in-person therapy. Of course, teletherapy also provides essential access to care in more remote areas that simply do not have local providers available.

Building your own capacity for teletherapy

While some school-based telemental health programs are home-grown, others are coordinated by telehealth companies or in coordination with platforms used by nearby health systems and community providers. States continue to refine and expand their telehealth policies, with roughly two-thirds of states enacting legislation to establish schools as a primary site for telehealth services or for reimbursement through state Medicaid programs.

Institutions currently without these capabilities may not be able to stand them up overnight, but district leaders and heads of schools should evaluate the range of available solutions as they think through how to scale mental health supports during and after coronavirus.

To bring tech-enabled mental health support to your school or district:

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