Approximately 1 in 6 school-age children experience a mental health disorder each year, and experts estimate up to 60% of students do not receive the care they need to address these challenges. Of the students who receive mental health care, many access those services at school. But, access to services is by no means guaranteed, as ongoing workforce concerns and an unequal distribution of behavioral health providers across the country further complicate matters. As school systems seek to support the whole child throughout their educational journey, some are finding innovative ways to ensure students receive the mental health care they need — sometimes via less-traditional means like telehealth technology.
Telehealth refers to the provision of health care remotely by means of telecommunications technology — including videoconferencing, streaming media, wireless communications and other electronic means. Where this option exists in schools, telehealth is often provided through school-based health centers and used to improve access to treatment that might otherwise be limited for students. According to a report from the American Telemedicine Association, school-based telehealth can provide access to a wide spectrum of care — including mental health — in order to improve health quality and academic outcomes.
At the state and federal levels, support for telehealth in schools has primarily centered on funding for these services. Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted funds to 120 school-based health centers to, in part, expand access to mental health-related services for students. Many states provide grant funding to school-based health centers, and some state policies allow telehealth services to be covered through Medicaid.
With or without these supports, telehealth options have taken hold in districts and school systems, especially in rural areas where access may be especially limited. Examples from rural communities include:
- The Dickinson Public School District in southwest North Dakota uses telehealth technology to expand access to mental health treatment for students. In addition to the school counselors and school psychologists already available, students can access specialized services — such as psychiatry — through virtual sessions with providers who may be located hundreds of miles away.
- A pilot project at a school in Orleans, Indiana, provides students with access to therapists from Indiana University Health via a two-way video chat. Project leaders are tracking the effects of the pilot on academic performance, discipline rates, absenteeism and overall student mental health.
- The Telehealth ROCKS Schools program provides telehealth services to school-based health centers in rural parts of Kansas to address various health concerns, including behavioral health. This program is run through the University of Kansas Medical Center, in partnership with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas rural school-based health centers and the rural school districts served by the South Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative.
There are some challenges associated with telehealth adoption, including broadband access, privacy considerations and upfront infrastructure costs. When schools and districts can overcome these potential challenges, telehealth can be a tool to improve access to mental health care for their students. In order for students to enter the classroom ready to learn, they must receive the care they need. Telehealth technology is emerging as one avenue for providing that critical care to students who might not otherwise have easy access to it.