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College students in rural America need accessible mental health services now more than ever. In fact, the Association of American Medical Colleges notes that people living in rural areas received lower-quality health care and had worse health outcomes compared with residents of more populated areas. How can rural-serving institutions (RSIs) of higher education close the mental health support gap?
Identifying rural-serving higher education institutions
RSIs play a vital role in supporting educational opportunities, social development, and the well-being of rural residents, and communities.
The Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC) identified 1,087 rural-serving institutions including:
College students in rural communities face a scarcity of resources
ARRC data confirms that RSIs serve communities facing socioeconomic disparities. Of the higher education institutions located in low-employment counties, 83% are RSIs. More than two-thirds of the institutions located in persistent poverty counties are RSIs, as are 53% of institutions in persistent child-poverty counties.
With smaller average enrollments and a focus on undergraduate education, RSIs also enroll a greater share of low-income students who receive Federal Government Pell Grants, as well as a higher percentage of Native American/Alaska Native students. These institutions are reliant on state appropriations, and public RSIs receive a greater share of their revenues from state appropriations than non-rural-serving institutions.
Two- and four-year colleges and branch campuses that identify as RSIs face common challenges, including:
- Inadequate broadband connectivity.
- Lack of public transportation.
- Limited access to affordable childcare.
There is a struggle at many rural community colleges to fill faculty and staff positions, and many rural college leaders find that their concerns are not always reflected in the national conversation on higher education issues.
While the ongoing public health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic increased attention to many of the issues in rural areas, it has unfortunately also increased the severity of those challenges and increased health disparities.
Barriers to care impact student health and well-being in rural communities
Rural barriers to mental health services are commonly summarized within three categories:
Rural students often have limited access to mental health care due to cost, health insurance coverage, and lower behavioral health literacy, which allows mental health concerns to go unrecognized and untreated. And, the remote nature of rural living typically requires students to travel long distances to meet with clinicians and health care providers for consultation and to receive services.
County-Level Estimates of Mental Health Professional Shortage in the U.S. report that higher levels of unmet need for mental health care exist in counties that are more rural and have lower income levels.
It’s common for rural students to experience self-stigma, fear, or embarrassment related to seeking out mental healthcare due to personal beliefs. Additionally, evidence suggests that rural populations have a more difficult time recognizing the signs and symptoms of various mental illnesses, which amplifies access issues.
Decrease barriers to health care in rural communities
Why rural institutions can struggle to support student mental health
Obstacles faced by rural school systems and educators in serving students with mental health concerns include:
- Distance between school and services
- Lack of available healthcare professionals, healthcare services, and specialty care
- Lack of funds, insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, etc.
- Lack of instructional time for students
- Breadth of the curriculum
- Recruitment and retention of the school staff
- Lack of high-speed internet for internet access
- Parent involvement
- Lack of basic needs support
Research shows that rural areas have significantly fewer mental health professionals relative to urban areas. In fact, many rural areas don’t have psychiatrists and about half don’t have a psychologist. One study found a significant lack of access to specialty mental health care (like psychiatry) in rural areas across the U.S. As many as 65% of nonmetropolitan counties lack psychiatrists, and over 60% of rural Americans live in designated mental health provider shortage areas.
In addition to the realities of the economic, social, mental, and physical health stresses of the pandemic, rural college student success increasingly hinges on wraparound services, support, and healthcare systems provided by their schools. For rural students, college can be a key part of the response to the mental health crisis occurring at colleges and universities across the country. Their institutions’ support systems can help them cope with the stress caused by the coronavirus and find academic success.
How virtual health care can benefit college students in rural communities
There’s no singular challenge that rural colleges face. So, there’s no singular solution. But, an immediate response and intervention are critical to the well-being of all students. And while leaders at rural schools may not have as many resources at their disposal, they can consider using virtual health care solutions to address both physical and mental health needs.
Primary care delivered through high-quality telehealth services is fast, easy, and efficient. Virtual care delivered through telehealth and telemedicine visits eliminate wait times, reduce the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and are available the moment a student needs care. There are positive effects on campus health and wellness when students don’t have to wait days or weeks for a counseling center appointment, delay a medical visit at the campus health center, or leave campus to wait for care at the local hospital’s emergency department.
For example, following the launch of a telehealth initiative one institution’s overall student healthcare utilization increased by 36%, while improving the flow and availability of campus clinic resources. Since the telehealth program is accessible 24/7/365, students use videoconferencing and virtual visits to access medical care and mental health support, whenever and wherever it’s most convenient.
“Adding TimelyMD to the mix so our campus clinic can accommodate same-day appointments has made students, parents and family members, and clinic staff very happy,” said the institution’s medical practice manager.
TimelyMD helps rural-serving institutions improve student health
With virtual care, students can be treated using telehealth and telemedicine for a variety of common health conditions, as well as mental health concerns. And TimelyMD enables campus medical and mental health providers to see students who require an in-person visit for more acute or severe conditions. Working hand-in-hand with on-campus healthcare resources, TimelyMD optimizes available resources and provides students in rural areas with real-time care when other options may be limited or unavailable.
Contact TimelyMD to learn how mental and physical virtual health care for rural-serving institutions can make a difference in the lives of your students.