The pandemic has taken a toll on the well-being of high school and college students, according to data showing significant increases in utilization of mental health services at secondary schools and across higher education.
The University of South Florida is responding to these needs with expanded resources, including the launch this fall of TimelyCare, a virtual health and well-being platform and mobile app. TimelyCare, provided by TimelyMD, offers a broad range of scheduled and on-demand care specifically for college students.
At USF, TimelyCare services are focused on mental health and are available free to all currently enrolled students. TalkNow, the platform’s on-demand 24/7 component, offers unlimited sessions with behavioral health professionals, with appointments usually available within 15 minutes.
Additionally, students can schedule up to nine visits with a dedicated counselor during an academic year. Psychiatric care is also provided, for a fee, with a referral from the university’s clinicians.
“We have been working very hard to make sure we have sufficient capacity for students who need help,” said Donna Petersen, chief health officer for USF, interim associate vice provost for Student Health and Wellness and dean of the USF College of Public Health.
“I think students appreciate having options with the way health services are delivered,” Petersen continued. “As we see increasing demand and acuity, this enables us to provide care as quickly as possible.”
TimelyCare doesn’t require insurance and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from anywhere – helping the university to support its full student population, including online students nationwide and internationally. With services available in the privacy of their home or any location of their choosing, students should feel more comfortable seeking help.
In addition to scheduled counseling and TalkNow, TimelyCare offers health coaching to help develop healthy lifestyle behaviors, including nutrition, sleep habits, time management and mindfulness. A self-care section offers content including yoga and meditation sessions, as well as group conversations with providers on a variety of health and well-being topics.
TimelyCare joins two other online platforms USF offers for mental health services to supplement the university’s in-person counseling services.
Togetherall is a peer-to-peer service where students can find emotional support for common mental health concerns in a completely confidential setting. Trained professionals serve as moderators, and the platform is available 24 hours a day.
TAO provides interactive telehealth resources and is available to students and employees. It offers educational modules that address topics such as anxiety, depression and alcohol use and is designed to supplement traditional counseling.
TimelyCare was rolled out at the beginning of the fall semester with a soft launch that focused on providing psychiatric services. A full launch followed earlier this month, and the early response has been positive, according to Dr. Joseph Puccio, executive and medical director for USF Student Health Services.
Puccio was already exploring how USF could meet increased demand for mental health services when he traveled to a conference in San Diego over the summer. While there, he met an executive from TimelyMD and colleagues from other institutions who had added the platform.
“We believe the TimelyCare platform is exactly what our students need,” Puccio said. “When I spoke with people who are using it, they had nothing but great reviews. They said their students are very happy with the services.”
TimelyCare, Togetherall and TAO are available to students on all three USF campuses.
Earlier this month, the university’s St. Petersburg campus introduced “I Asked 4 Help,” an online initiative that includes information on how to find crisis and emergency services, a section to submit referrals, testimonials from students who sought help and other comprehensive resources.
The idea for the initiative came from Victoria Beltran, assistant director of prevention services at the Wellness Center on the St. Petersburg campus. Beltran said she recognized the need for a “one-stop shop” to connect students with any resources they might need.
“It’s really important to show students that it may be awkward, and it may be difficult, but asking for help is a skill that can only move you forward,” Beltran said.
At USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, where plans are in motion to welcome residential students for the first time in fall 2024, foundational work is underway to enhance counseling services in anticipation of increased demand.
While that’s taking place, TimelyCare and USF’s other virtual platforms fill a vital need for care, according to Alyssa Burns, assistant director for Student Success at the Sarasota-Manatee campus. Burns added that students have started utilizing TimelyCare and have been pleased with the service.
The addition of TimelyCare will help USF meet increased demand for mental health services at a time when institutions across higher ed are experiencing staffing shortages caused by the pandemic-fueled resignation of workers in all health care fields.
Scott Strader, director of the Counseling Center on the Tampa campus, said utilization has risen by roughly 10 percent each year since the early stages of the pandemic when demand plummeted as learning shifted to remote delivery and many students accessed mental health services closer to home.
While not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, Strader said students have returned and, in increasing numbers, are seeking urgent care for more severe needs.
“We’ve already seen a very large increase in immediate services,” Strader said. “We are seeing more students with trauma in their backgrounds, more severe anxiety and depression and, in some cases, students who are at greater risk of self-harm.”
National data suggest that high school students arriving on college campuses are showing signs of stress from two years of pandemic learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 70 percent of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school since COVID upended learning in the spring of 2020.
The fact that many of those students sought and received care before arriving on campuses could help remove some of the stigma typically associated with seeking help in an unfamiliar environment, Petersen said.
“I believe we will see COVID-related impacts in every cohort of new college students for years going forward,” she said. “No matter where they were in their developmental progression, it will have had an impact on them. We expect to see a more fragile, perhaps more anxious group of students, but also students more comfortable seeking services, and we’re going to be very attentive to that.”