Short of Counselors, US Schools Turn to Online Therapy

Public schools in the United States are increasingly using online mental health services, or teletherapy, for students.

At least 16 of America’s 20 largest public school systems offer online therapy to reach millions of students, the Associated Press reports. In those systems alone, schools have signed provider contracts worth more than $70 million.

The business model makes a lot of money venture capitals invests in new companies as the market grows. However, some experts have raised concerns about the quality of care offered by fast-growing technology companies.

But educators say teletherapy works for many children and meets a great need. Schools are also experiencing shortages of on-site therapists. Online help has made therapy more accessible to children, especially poor students and those in rural areas. Schools let students connect online advisors during the school day or after hours from home.

Ishoo is a mother of two in Lancaster, California. She struggled to help her second-grade daughter deal with the seriousness anxiety.

Last spring, her school district started a teletherapy program and Ishoo signed her daughter up. During a month of weekly video sessions in her home, the woman opened up to a therapist. The therapist provides the student with tools and techniques to reduce anxiety.

He learned that it’s OK to ask for help, and that sometimes everyone needs a little extra help, Ishoo said.

The 13,000-student school system, like many others, has counselors and psychologists on staff. But it’s not enough to meet demand, said Trish Wilson, of Lancaster supervisor of counseling.

Area therapists have full caseloads, making it impossible to offer immediate care to students, he said. Students rarely wait long for an online session.

Students and their parents said in interviews that they turned to teletherapy after struggling with feelings of sadness, loneliness, stress and anxiety. For many, returning to in-person school after distance learning is very difficult.

Schools are using federal pandemic aid money to pay for aid as experts warn of alarming rates of youth depression, anxiety and suicide. Many school districts sign contracts with private companies. Others work with local health care providers, nonprofits or state programs.

Mental health experts welcome the extra support but warn about the possible dangers. For one, it is becoming more difficult to use on-site school counselors and psychologists. Competition among telehealth providers is not helping.

Notes from students expressing support and sharing coping strategies paper on a wall. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

We have 44 counselors vacanciesand certainly telehealth effects our ability to fill them, says Doreen Hogans. He is a school counseling supervisor in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Hogans estimates 20 percent of school counselors who leave take teletherapy jobs. Jobs often provide better working hours than schools.

The companies’ rapid growth raises questions about the quality of therapists, and their experience with children and privacy, said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel. He is executive director of Counseling in Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools improve traditional, in-person mental health services.

One of the largest providers is San Francisco-based Hazel Health. It started with telemedicine health services in schools in 2016 and expanded to mental health in May 2021, CEO Josh Golomb said. It now employs more than 300 therapists who provide teletherapy in more than 150 school districts in 15 states.

Other providers are entering the space. In November, New York City launched a free telehealth therapy service for youth to help break down barriers access, said Ashwin Vasan, the city’s health commissioner. New York is paying the company TalkSpace $26 million over three years for a service that allows teenagers to download an app and connect with therapists.

Unlike other cities, New York offers services to all youth, whether they attend private, public or home schools, or are out of school.

I really hope this normalizes and democratizes access to mental health care for our youth, Vasan said.

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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Words in This Story

investment n. money used to start a new business

counselor n. a person who gives advice as a job : a person who advises people

anxiety n. fear or nervousness of what might happen

supervise v. to be in charge of

vacant n. a job or position available for hire

effect n. the action or force of one object striking another

access n. a way of approaching, to, or to something or someone

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