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College Students Struggle to Access Out-of-State School Providers During COVID-19

College students count on their schools for mental-health help, but now many can’t get it

Published Wednesday, June 10, 2020
by Lauren Lumpkin

It had been a tough five years at George Washington University, but when Hannah’s last semester arrived, so did relief. She started applying for jobs, envisioning life away from the District.

The feeling didn’t last. One night in March, Hannah, in Florida for a job interview, met up with friends in Fort Lauderdale, where a stranger sexually assaulted her, she said.

She returned to campus and sought help from the student health center. Next, she wanted to see a psychiatrist. But then the coronavirus forced GWU to close. Hannah didn’t hear back from the counseling center until after she settled home in rural Iowa.

“[GWU’s] big thing is that you should try to find counseling at home. But there is no counseling at home,” said Hannah, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name. “The closest psychiatrist is two hours away, and they also have a long waiting list. For therapy in the area, there’s two or three within a half-hour drive, but they’re not taking patients right now.”

For millions of students, their universities also serve as health-care providers. Students purchase school-sponsored health care, get yearly checkups with on-campus physicians and seek advice from therapists in the counseling center.

But those relationships were thrown into chaos when the virus sent students scrambling back home in other states, where crucial services often can’t be accessed or simply aren’t available.

Campuses have responded by offering group counseling sessions on Zoom and wellness web­inars. But with students scattered throughout the country, schools have had to scale back one of the most important services they provide: clinical therapy.

On-campus therapists face a hodgepodge of state licensure laws that dictate where they can and can’t practice. Medical and psychology boards in nearly every state have relaxed some guidelines, and some states are allowing anyone with a valid license to practice. But Maryland, Virginia and about two dozen other states still require psychologists to apply for temporary licenses or receive special permission to practice.

The result is that many college students can’t access therapy. Some on-campus practitioners are getting emergency licenses, said Joy Himmel, member of a covid-19 task force for the American College Health Association, an organization of college health professionals. But many schools are limiting clinical therapy to students who either live in-state or in a state where interstate telehealth is legal. Several schools aren’t taking any new clients, according to a survey from the national college health group.

Last month, a group of student leaders representing 2 million students at more than 130 schools called on states to suspend their regulations so caregivers can practice freely in any state.


“Once we moved online, students who were receiving continuous counseling from the university were unable to have that continuous care,” said SJ Matthews, the outgoing student body president at GWU

She and other leaders who signed the letter say students aren’t getting the near-immediate care they would normally receive on campus. As the semester winds down, students are worried about how they will transition to care over the summer. Some students may face the same issue come fall, if their universities start the semester remotely.

“Their entire support network is gone,” Matthews said. “They rely on the university for health care, but they also rely on their network of student staff and faculty that support them. It’s hard to lose that so quickly.”

When campuses across the country emptied, it quickly became clear that the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus would trigger new cases of anxiety and depression among a population that is already vulnerable.

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