Understanding Partnerships for University Mental Health Services

Understanding Partnerships for University Mental Health Services

Rory Kelly, Editorial Contributor

As the need for mental health services continues to increase for colleges and universities across the country, so does the need for their counseling centers to adapt to the increased demand. Most schools are facing the challenge of working within their existing budgets, counseling center structure and team of clinicians to provide services that meet the ever-changing needs of today’s college students. For many, looking for partners to help provide specialized support or to ease capacity issues can be an excellent option. 

To help schools navigate the process of engaging outside partners, the American College Health Association (ACHA) published a whitepaper in May outlining guidelines for colleges and universities considering partnering with third party vendors for student healthcare services.

The ACHA article establishes four types of relationships that can occur between a school and an outside provider: contracting, outsourcing, co-sourcing, and managing services only.

  • Contracting: outside entity agrees to provide specific service to school and operates on the school’s terms (i.e., hours of operation, scope, mission/vision)
  • Outsourcing: outside entity responsible for daily functioning of health care services and owns clinical data; most of the school’s healthcare system consists of non-university employees
  • Co-sourcing: outside entity combines efforts with school to achieve a common goal of mutually vested interest to provide more students access to the right care at the right time
  • Managing services only (MSO): outside entity supports school health center with non-clinical and administrative services (i.e. manage electronic health records)

Though presented in the article as distinct buckets of relationships, they exist on more of a sliding spectrum as they are defined by interactions between the health care provider and the university.

Difficulties of Mental Healthcare System Change at the University Level

System restructuring for colleges and universities presents a number of challenges due to the wide variety of stakeholders, from students to faculty to the local community, and their varying values and concerns. These are difficult decisions, especially because many consider student health, and mental health in particular, to be sensitive subjects.

The ACHA guide thoroughly combs through questions and concerns that commonly arise during decision-making processes regarding student health care. Though the discussion points focus on billing, implementation, EHRs and more, they speak to softer but equally important issues around trust and control. 

College and university cultures develop over time. No two schools are the same, and only an insider—such as a student, a faculty member, or a parent of a student—best understands the lived experience of the school. With this in mind, the thought of directing students to a group or service not organic to the school in such a high need and high specificity area as mental health care gives many schools pause.

Entrusted to take care of the university’s students, a university health center, including counseling services, may be averse to having their students engage with outside partners. They do not want to lose control of their students’ care. Yet, student demand for mental health services and the need to reach even more students who may not be seeking help, have encouraged many schools to engage with quality vendors who can help them serve their students in a trusted manner. 

Trust and Innovation

The ACHA questions strive to flesh out all the details of an outsourcing or similar type contract between a school and a provider. In seeking to elevate student mental health and wellbeing together with schools, trust is the capstone to a successful system.

The discussion points reviewed by the ACHA provide relevant questions to all schools in regard to their health systems and mental health care services. One promising area that was highlighted is technology.  Technology that can address mental health service demand is evolving faster than ever. As hubs for intellectual and emotional development, colleges and universities have the opportunity to embrace social and technological advances with a target population of open, curious students to take advantage of the new treatment possibilities that enhance individuals and entire school communities.

CONNECT@College-- A Christie Campus Solution

Christie Campus Health’s CONNECT@College program offers a high-touch catalog of services to wrap around and leverage the existing strengths of college and university health systems. The 24/7/365 triage hotline directs students to the appropriate option for them: an 8-week online self-guided cognitive behavioral training, an appointment at the counseling center (the single path to get help in most schools), or referrals to vetted clinicians and professionals in the community for healing that requires a longer time frame. In addition, the CONNECT@College Navigators are available to assist students in overcoming barriers to treatment, ranging from registering students for the online cognitive behavioral course to providing the student with the contact information for a community provider currently open to new clients. With CONNECT, college and university health centers can focus all their efforts on their mission to provide students high-quality medical and mental health care and to support a healthy campus, and they can know that Christie Campus Health supports those goals, too, by working to resolve the college mental health crisis on a system-wide level.


About Rory Kelly

Rory Kelly received her BA from Middlebury College in May of 2019, with a major in neuroscience and a minor in Arabic. During her undergraduate experience, Rory worked in a number of research labs and conducted a senior project investigating the effects of traumatic brain injury on the blood brain barrier. While at Middlebury, she served as a mentor for a local elementary school student, contributed to a mental health awareness initiative called the Resilience Project, led campus tours for prospective students and families, and ran to All-American honors in cross country and track and field. In her role as a CONNECT Navigator, Rory hopes to empower students through care access assistance so they can fully engage in their college experience.

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