Driven by the increasing need of mental health services, Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas and Baylor University will launch an online counseling program for the upcoming academic year.
Called Therapists Assisted Online (TAO), it was founded in 2012 by a former University of Florida counseling center director. The service will not replace the standard, face-to-face therapy, but instead will complement it. The aim of the new program is to reach as many students as possible by utilizing up to 20-minute video conferences with counselors. That would reduce the time spent on each person by almost 70 percent.
The TAO program requires individuals to complete online modules from diverse topics like mindfulness and positive psychology. Counselors monitor their progress through an online dashboard and regular mental health assessments before meeting online in a weekly video conference.
The focus of the program is on individuals with mild to moderate anxiety and depression, writes Estephany Escobar of the NewsWest9. People with suicidal thoughts or more severe psychological issues will be re-directed to the individual counseling on campus.
Anxiety and depression are among the major mental health concerns on college campuses nationwide, according to a 2015 research study by the American College Health Association. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health estimated that the need of mental health services is increasing roughly five times faster than college admission.
Depending on the school size, the program costs between $4,000 and $25,000 annually, writes Aneri Pattani of The Texas Tribune. On the other hand, the starting salary of a full-time psychologist would be about $50,000 per year. Dr. Maggie Gartner, director of counseling services at Texas A&M, commented that the program allows colleges to offer more services without hiring additional personnel. She also stated that the counselor would be able to help up to three students online in an hour instead of just one.
As traditional live counseling sessions take about 50 minutes, some psychology experts have raised concerns about whether the shortened sessions would provide enough help. The professionals also doubted whether there were privacy risks involved in online counseling.
In an interview with local TV channel KBTX, cited by Kathleen Witte, Dr. Maggie Gartner argued that students are already used to digital communication so they would not find it impersonal or odd to join an online therapy course.
Gartner expected that some 200 A&M students would take advantage of the program this academic year, which would decrease the average amount of time students have to wait for a counseling appointment. According to Tamara Grosz, the counseling center director at UNT, this online service would be convenient for working students, students with families or those who live off campus. Jim Marsh, counseling center director at Baylor, commented:
"A main goal for the program is to increase our ability to see more students and see them quickly. With busy schedules, some students may prefer the shorter sessions and the ability to connect from their room."
TAO was first launched as a treatment for anxiety for University of Florida students in 2013. As stated on its official website, the effectiveness went far beyond the team's most optimistic expectations. By the end of May 2014, 100 UF students participated in the online counseling and showed significant improvement compared to their peers treated with traditional psychotherapy. Subsequently, the TAO team started receiving inquiries from other academic institutions about a pilot use of the platform.