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Tech firms enter the business of campus mental health care

Northeastern University has been hiring more therapists this year to add to its staff of 12 people who work with about 20,000 students.
Northeastern University has been hiring more therapists this year to add to its staff of 12 people who work with about 20,000 students.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

At many college counseling centers therapists are overwhelmed and students are forced to wait weeks for an appointment, even as more of them seek help for anxiety, depression, and sleep and eating disorders.

Christie Campus Health, a Lexington start-up that will be launched Wednesday, thinks it has a solution: technology.

Christie, an arm of the Mary Christie Foundation, plans to partner with colleges and universities to handle the overflow of short-term counseling needs, using a network of therapists who are available online or over the phone.

The company also offers ways for students to check their behavior online, find the right long-term therapist, and navigate the complex world of health insurance.

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Christie’s Connect@College program is trying to “help college counseling centers where there have been pain points,” said Kaitlin Gallo, the company’s chief clinical officer. “We want to help more students get the services they need, at the time they need them.”

Christie is just one of a band of private companies promising colleges and their students assistance in handling the surge in demand for mental health care on campuses across the country.

From phone apps that assess a student’s well-being to online sites that make personalized recommendations for off-campus therapists, private companies have introduced a slate of technology-driven tools.

Their business model is simple: Fill in the many gaps of mental health care services on US college campuses and make money doing it.

Anxiety and depression are increasing among college students, and many young adults no longer feel any stigma in seeking help, increasing the demand for counselors and therapists, said Laura Horne, a program director for Active Minds, a Washington D.C., mental health advocacy and suicide prevention nonprofit.

The number of students seeking behavioral health services on campus rose six times faster than the rate of student enrollment in a recent five-year stretch, Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported in 2016.

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But many colleges are overwhelmed by students’ needs, and private companies recognize that, Horne said.

Active Minds constantly gets calls from businesses that want the organization to recommend their services, Horne said. “I’ve got 10 technology companies who come to me in a month,” Horne said. “Trying to differentiate between them is difficult.”

Still, colleges are ramping up their mental health care offerings.

Many are hiring more counselors, including those able to reach out to black and other minority students, who recent research has shown are less likely to seek mental health services or have their problems properly diagnosed and treated. Northeastern University, for example, has been hiring more therapists this year to add to its staff of 12 people who work with about 20,000 students.

A few colleges are looking for ways to address the underlying issues causing depression and anxiety, including students’ lack of resources, such as food and child care, Horne said.

Some colleges are also seeking outside help.

Framingham State University recently partnered with YOU at College, an online platform that provides a Web-based mental health assessment, links to campus resources, and tips on mindfulness and study habits to help reduce stress and anxiety.

YOU at College, which began as a partnership between Grit Digital Health and Colorado State University, is now working with more than 20 campuses nationwide, according to company officials.

Other companies have developed a following among college students by word-of-mouth, instead of formal partnerships with institutions.

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Zencare, founded three years ago, connects students with therapists and clinicians in their area.

For longer-term care, college counseling centers often refer students off-campus, but the list of therapists can be extensive, appointments difficult to make, and fee information out of date, said Yuri Tomikawa, who graduated from Brown University in 2012 and started Zencare a few years later.

The majority of its users are college students, and Zencare allows them to search for therapists online, based on their insurance, care needs, preferences for a certain gender, language expertise, and approach. The service, which is in Boston, Rhode Island, and New York, is free to use but charges therapists who are on its registry.

“There’s a huge need,” Tomikawa said. “Every university is on a trajectory of improving their mental health services.”

For some schools, simply hiring more counselors isn’t the best or most cost-effective solution, said Robert Meenan, the president of Christie Campus Health and former dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health.

Christie works with a network of off-campus therapists that students can reach out to over the phone, online, or in person at all hours of the day, Meenan said.

Colleges would contract with Christie for the services, most likely paid for through a $50 to $100 mental health care fee that all students would be charged on their tuition bill, Meenan said.

Christie Campus Health is working on contracts with several colleges and plans to be operating with at least one Boston-area institution by the spring, he said.

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Meenan declined to name the colleges the company is partnering with, since negotiations are still ongoing.

But he said college administrators are aware that more has to be done to support students and ensure they get the treatment they need so they can stay in college and earn their degrees.

“We wanted to make sure we had something that would address what is a major problem,” Meenan said. “We saw an opportunity, we saw a need.”

Whether these technology start-ups are the answer to the mental health care crisis on college campuses is still unclear, said Horne, of Active Minds.

College students are interested in using technology-based options in getting care, Horne said.

“We are still waiting on more data to see how effective they are,” she said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.