Remote therapy partnership gets more time to help N.J. college students under extended contract

Continuing a trend

A first-of-its-kind partnership between the state and a remote therapy platform — one that’s boosting college mental health service capacity and serving as a test case in how colleges might build on the infusion of one-time American Rescue Plan funds — is getting an extended run.

The experiment began a year ago, when New Jersey committed $10 million of federal funds to providing local higher education institutions with no-cost remote therapy options through the mental health firm Uwill. That contract was, as of this year, extended through spring 2025.

Brian Bridges. (Courtesy photos)

The state’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges announced that during the New Jersey Higher Education Mental Health Summit in January. That event was at Seton Hall University, one of the vast majority of universities in the state that have opted into the Uwill partnership.

Dr. Dianne Aguero-Trotter, director at Seton Hall University’s Counseling and Psychological Services Department, said they’ve tried to make students aware of the Uwill service in their own mental health awareness pushes, including in email blasts and papers posted around campus.

“And, a lot of our students have been accessing Uwill directly,” she said. “It’s meeting a need. … It’s providing a necessary service for students who might not otherwise be able to come into our (counseling) center.”

Those in the mental health sector tend to agree that today’s youth have mostly graduated from the same level of stigma surrounding therapy that haunted previous generations. Regardless, Aguero-Trotter said, barriers remain.

Dr. Dianne Aguero-Trotter.

Some students prefer not to be seen by peers walking into a campus psychological services office. And she expects that plays some role in about 80% of those registering for the all-online Uwill platform never having been to a counseling center.

“(So) it’s definitely providing students a link to services and normalizing help-seeking,” she said. “(Young) people are making commitments to their mental health and well-being, and I think it goes a long way to have the state committed to this well.”

Universities will take all the help they can get when it comes to mental health services. Seton Hall also used a grant allocated by New Jersey’s state budget to build a suicide prevention, education and outreach program over the past few years called Great Minds Dare to Care that Aguero-Trotter is excited about.

That’s all to say that campus-based mental health leaders were pleased to hear the more than 10,000 students benefiting from Uwill across the Garden State will continue to have access to their tele-therapy, crisis connection and wellness programming over the next year.

“We’re doing all we can to address the needs of students with high-acuity mental health needs,” Aguero-Trotter said. “So, I think another way Uwill is helping in our department is that it may serve some students that don’t have high-acuity needs; then, with that support, we have more of the capacity we need to assist those higher-risk individuals who perhaps need longer-term, intensive treatment needs.”

As savvy with digital options as students might be, there’s still a preference among some for in-person therapy services. Especially with on-campus dorm living situations, students might not have the privacy they’d like — or the dependable internet they need — for remote appointments.

Dr. Jaclyn Friedman-Lombardo.

Dr. Jaclyn Friedman-Lombardo, head of Montclair State University‘s counseling and psychological services, said there are other situations in which students just can’t find the time during peak hours to fit in appointments.

“What we’ve really wanted to take advantage of is the way Uwill provides teletherapy for students who might be interested in having appointments after we’re closed during the week, or on the weekends,” she said. “The students love to schedule (these services) at a time that works for them, so they enjoy the increased access.”

In fact, the state’s education officials have reported that a third of all appointments made in New Jersey on the Uwill platform were during off-peak hours. A survey of counseling staff at institutions that have paired up with Uwill revealed that almost 80% felt they were enjoying a new level of after-hours mental health support for students.

“For students on what’s largely a commuter campus, it’s also important to have this for students who live out of state and go home,” Friedman-Lombardo said. “Our counseling center is happy to provide (remote) appointments, but we have to be licensed in the state the client is located in in order to provide those students. So, if a student goes to Pennsylvania in the summer, we can’t provide them services at that time.”

If there’s any downside she’s heard from students, she added, it’s that the sessions are limited to 30 minutes. But she’s gathered more positive than negative feedback from students on the sessions.

“And having access to an unlimited number of sessions itself is huge,” Friedman-Lombardo said. “Through our counseling model and others, individuals are seen for an average of six sessions. And those who want longer-term care transition from individual to group therapy. But, some students really want individual therapy for a long time.”

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines: Mental health leaders on college campuses will readily admit students need those long-term connections with therapists because more of them are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Dr. Amy Hoch.

Dr. Amy Hoch, a licensed psychologist and associate director of counseling and psychological services at Rowan University, said data pointed to an increase of anxiety, depression and trauma leading up to the pandemic — after which, that increase became much more dramatic.

“We know social connections are one of the best predictors of well-being, and students lost those connections and reported high rates of loneliness during the pandemic,” she said. “Even postpandemic, students have come to campus and had a harder time feeling that they can initiate social interactions, get past social anxiety and feel a sense of belonging. Our community’s most marginalized students may have even more difficulty with that.”

That’s all compounded by students struggling to keep up academically amid that shift, Hoch said. Rowan responded to that by putting a system in place through which faculty and staff can help make outreach to those students, who are often at risk of dropping out without mental health support or even crisis intervention services.

Engagement of students that are already feeling isolated and cleft from social connections isn’t always easy. But it’s necessary, front-line campus mental health staffers say.

“We have to make this connection, whether it’s with students virtually or in-person, and overcome the issue of inequities around access to health care that became clear during the pandemic,” Hoch said. “There’s a concept of well-being across all those at a university we hold responsibility for. We don’t want students to just get by, we really want them to thrive in the face of adversity.”

Fighting bullying

There’s another facet of school life state leaders have seen a need to attend to: bullying.

And, it’s not the typical recess bad-mouthing that John Paul Simon, director of clinical interventions in schools for the nonprofit CarePlus New Jersey, describes as the mental health-jeopardizing bullying that takes place today.

John Paul Simon.

“A lot of that isn’t happening just in the traditional way,” he said. “In fact, there’s a spike of incidents being reported through conflict on TikTok, Instagram posts. The environment of bullying itself has widened.”

Simon is an assistant director of the NJ4S Bergen Hub, one of the 15 school district-focused hub-and-spoke organizations created statewide through funding allocated in Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget. State leaders have identified a mental health crisis across all educational levels in the wake of the pandemic, requiring the sort of programming provided by NJ4S.

Simon indicated the communication-stunting months of pandemic isolation exacerbated the issue of bullying in New Jersey’s schools, and there’s a recognition among state leaders that needs to be addressed, too.

Easier said than done, of course.

“It’s easy to fall into a reductionist approach with this, where the expectation is you eliminate the bullying behavior, treat the victim of bullying and issue consequences — and that ties everything up in a nice bow,” Simon said. “But, to get to the core issue of bullying, which is endemic of communication gaps and conflicts, the idea is how as a system can we foster different types of communication and continue to provide opportunities for young students to have a space to develop healthier levels of interaction?”

Simon’s organization is interested in taking a systemic approach to supporting the development of New Jersey’s youth, which sometimes involves interventions that bridge students exhibiting mental health symptoms and existing community resources.

And businesses have their own responsibilities in this systemic approach to solving bullying, Simon suggests.

“Companies today, especially those whose customer base are young students, are being challenged to be more socially aware of what’s contributing to the welfare of children,” he said. “Part of that is asking whether our platform is contributing to the incidence of bullying, or the degradation of our youth’s self-image, or if we’re fostering unrealistic expectations of success or acceptability in society.”