Students given access to virtual mental health help

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From exams to time management - and just learning to fit in, life as a college student can be stressful.

Recognizing this, a team of researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville developed a website and app where students can get help without having to wait for an appointment with a professional.

"We couldn't keep up with demand. There [were] more students that needed help that we could possibly accommodate," says psychologist Sherry Benton.

She is the former head of the student counseling center at UF. She and some of her colleagues created the online tool that makes assisting more students possible.

The software is called TAO Connect, short for Therapy Assistance Online.

It's now available to 1.3 million students attending 84 universities across North America.

"TAO at each university is kind of white labeled so students have the sense their going to their own counseling center," Benton explained.

That's because, along with online self-help, TAO offers students 20-minute, virtual, face-to-face sessions with campus counselors. 

The program is licensed to colleges for use by all enrolled students, who primarily use it for symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

The program is also being used as a tool by athletic departments, student conduct officers, and as part of an academic course that explains how conditions like depression affect the brain.

Now, a portion of the program is expanding beyond college campuses, offering online self-enrollment, self-help access to adults for a monthly fee of $30.

Benton says she hopes it will give more than 100 million people living in federally designated, under-served areas for mental health an affordable way to get help. 

"If you don't have access then basically you just suffer, it doesn't matter what you do with health insurance, if you have health insurance but don't have providers it doesn't help," she says.

A handful of practitioners now use the program in their private practices but TAO is in the process of expanding that service, as well. 

In late 2017, they signed a contract with a nationwide group of mental health counselors to provide the HIPPA compliant video conferencing to more patients.

She believes allowing people to get help in the privacy of their own home will eliminate barriers people face in their daily lives like child care, travel, and especially time off work.

"How many people do you know would be comfortable going to their boss and asking for an hour and a half off work for the next 12 weeks?" she asks.

As for Benton, the new launch brings her one step closer to making her dream a reality.

"I want to really make a difference in terms of access to mental health in the U.S.  I think it's an enormous problem.  There's so many people that just absolutely don't have access," Benton says.