Virtual Treatment for College Students with Mood, Anxiety & Trauma-Related Disorders

Heather Dlugosz
Rebecca Hansen
Anne Kubal

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 25% of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental illness, and 73% of college students with mental health conditions have experienced a mental health crisis while on campus. At least 95% of college counselors report that mental health concerns and conditions are growing on their campuses.

With the growing need for quality treatment for mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders, Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center meets students where they are: offering virtual treatment and support. Not only can students access free resources such as support groups, but many qualifying patients can also receive the same exceptional care from the comfort of their home.

Today, we’re taking a deeper look at Pathlight’s virtual treatment programs that may help college-age students who are suffering.

How does virtual treatment for mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders work?

Dr. Heather A. Dlugosz: Virtual treatment helps to remove the barriers that can keep patients with mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders from receiving treatment. It supports individuals, often in areas of the country where they otherwise would not have access to care or while away from their primary supports/treatment team, to engage in specialized treatment and practice skills in the setting where they are residing currently.  It provides more flexibility for individuals with time constraints due to work, school or family obligations, those that have other barriers to travelling to an onsite program and for those individuals that may be more reluctant to receive treatment in person.

Dr. Rebecca Hansen: Virtual treatment for mental health disorders allows for continued care and connection during an extraordinary time. Virtual treatment has allowed continued, evidence-based care for patients who would otherwise not have access. Our goal is to remove barriers to seeking or continuing treatment.

How is it different than in-person treatment?

Dr. Dlugosz: Individuals receive the treatment at the level of care they are eligible for in the comfort of the space they are currently residing. There is no commute to programming so this may better fit an individual’s schedule to ensure treatment can be a priority. Individuals will be in small group sessions to maximize connection and their treatment experience and individual sessions with each of the member of their treatment team while on a HIPAA compliant virtual platform. As with our in-person treatment offerings, they will have a collaborative care team that focuses on individualized treatment plan development and meeting patients where they are at.

Dr. Hansen: Virtual treatment is similar to in-person treatment with a multidisciplinary team but allows connection with your treatment team virtually, in order to receive the support and structure of treatment. Like our in-person services, virtual options include individual and group support. Virtual programming allows for connectivity in a time when connection is more important than ever. Most major insurance companies cover virtual services. Important factors to consider are that you will need access to a computer, tablet or smart phone, as well as a private space where you can attend groups and individual sessions.

Please describe what a patient can expect during virtual treatment.

Dr. Dlugosz: Once an individual makes the challenging decision to commit to treatment and is assessed to be eligible for virtual treatment by our clinical assessment team, they will connect with their virtual delivery group team. Individuals can expect to receive the same high quality of care we offer at in-person programs while being able to practice their skills in their residing environment. We have a commitment to individualized care with evidence-based therapeutic modality incorporation and creativity with community building and connection in this unique offering.

Dr. Hansen: Prior to the start of programming, clients will participate in an orientation to the virtual program, in which they will receive materials detailing how to connect, what to expect, and how to optimize the group experience over virtual. They will also receive information about group curriculum and materials before each group.

Additionally, we continue to offer monthly Family Therapy for friends and loved ones to continue learning about mood, anxiety and trauma disorders. This is currently done virtually as well.

Our virtual treatment programs have been carefully designed and offer evidence-based treatment adapted for the virtual platform, based on outcome data and patient feedback. Our groups include treatment modalities such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical and Behavioral Therapy, and Experiential Therapy, in addition to Process groups. Group sizes are limited to ensure an intimate experience. Should a patient need a higher level of care, we are continuing to offer in-person services for our Partial Hospitalization Program and our Residential Program.

Why is a college student a good candidate for this type of treatment?

Dr. Dlugosz: If eligible, based on clinical status and level of mental health disorder behaviors, students may be great candidates for virtual treatment so that they can engage in treatment while maintaining in the school environment. Additionally, this type of treatment can support students enrolled in colleges and universities where they do not have local access to specialized mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders care on campus or when returning home that might not have had access to specialized care otherwise. Student schedules are often flexible, which may also allow for engagement in treatment concurrently.

Dr. Hansen: Many college students have transitioned to taking online college classes from home for the semester or year due to the pandemic or may be coming home for breaks between semesters. Virtual programming is a great way for first-time patients to experience a bit of what treatment is like or help serve as a booster of sorts if they need some help getting back on track. Virtual programming also allows the convenience of students being able to more easily fit treatment into their school schedule, as treatment schedules are often flexible.

Dr. Anne Kubal: As a former University Counseling Center psychologist, I am acutely aware that many students attend colleges and universities that are a significant distance away from treatment centers, sometimes forcing them to feel as if they have to choose between leaving school to seek more intensive treatment or delaying treatment to remain in school. One of the benefits of virtual treatment for mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders is that it allows college students to receive much needed treatment without needing to leave school or problem-solve transportation difficulties.

What types of treatment options are available online, and how does one choose which is right for them?

Dr. Dlugosz: We currently have, in some areas of the country, the option for Virtual Partial Hospitalization programs (VPHP), which run seven days a week and six hours per day.  We also have Virtual Intensive Outpatient programs (VIOP) in states where Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Centers are located and through our affiliate program in other states to increase access to care. VIOP programs run three days per week and three hours per day.  We offer free assessments with master’s level clinicians from the clinical assessment team and they will help individuals to determine the most appropriate level of care based on a multitude of factors including level and intensity of engagement in mental health disorder behaviors, medical status, support availabilities, co-morbidities including substance use and presence of safety related issues (suicidal, homicidal thoughts, self-harm urges and engagement, etc.) and others.

Dr. Hansen: There are several virtual treatment options available, so finding the right fit for a patient is so important. At Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center, we strive to help patients feel confident that they’ve made the right decision and feel supported in taking the next steps.

Some things to consider: Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center’s virtual programs offer patients treatment in the state where the patient is located. Therapists have been working hard to obtain licensure throughout the U.S. In the rare event that Pathlight does not hold licensure in a patient’s state, we will advocate for reciprocity for the patient individually. Pathlight’s virtual programs utilize a secure digital platform that ensures all services are confidential, HIPAA compliant and secure.

What kind of commitment is required for treatment, especially during the holidays?

Dr. Dlugosz: Committing to treatment is essential anytime of the year, not just during the holidays, to support in building motivation for a sustainable, values-driven life in recovery.  It is, however, especially important during the holidays where historically there can be more anxiety with seeing family and friends, less structure, and social events.  The sooner an individual can make the commitment to treatment, the sooner they can receive the full benefit of the support and interventions they need. Oftentimes, students are on break during the holiday season which can allow them to commit to the process more fully.

Dr. Hansen: Typically, for any level of care, we ask for a minimum of two weeks to get started with treatment. More often, the general timeframe for IOP and PHP are between four-to-six weeks total but vary for each individual person. Each patient will work directly with their treatment team to decide on a timeframe that both fits with their life commitments and also meets their medical needs for treatment.

What makes Pathlight’s treatment programs stand out?

Dr. Dlugosz: We stand out because of our commitment to provide the highest quality of care to individuals with a focus on a comprehensive treatment of the patient using multiple evidence-based modalities including Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO-DBT). Our team is composed of individuals with specialization in mental health disorder treatment and their comorbidities as well as extensive training in tele behavioral health and ethics. We offer a vertically integrated health system to support patients where they are at and offer the flexibility to transition to more support if they require a higher dosage of care. The intensity of Virtual Partial Hospitalization Program (VPHP) which is in session seven days per week is different than even some on-site programs with other providers. We have a commitment to the education of family/supports and this is reflected in educational programming offerings as well as alumni opportunities to support an individual post discharge.

Dr. Hansen: I strongly believe what makes Pathlight’s programs stand out, specifically our virtual programs at this time, is the creativity, thought and consideration that staff have put in to make the virtual experiences as close to in-person experiences as possible. We worked hard to adapt some of the most favorite groups and have found ways to incorporate them into our virtual platform. We work extremely hard to maintain the same superior quality in our virtual services that we provide for our in-person services.

Why should someone who is struggling start treatment now rather than after the holidays?

Dr. Dlugosz: The decision to start treatment is the first step to living a values-driven life in recovery and probably one of the hardest steps in the recovery process because it is the one that threatens mental health disorders the most. Getting into treatment at the right level of care and dosage of treatment needed is essential for an individual to begin taking steps for a sustainable recovery. Being in treatment allows for validation from peers, support, structure and accountability when working hard to interrupt behaviors and gives an individual access to skill development and a multidisciplinary treatment team to partner with them.

Dr. Hansen: Holidays can be some of the most stressful times of the year for someone struggling with a mental health disorder. Managing the stress and anxiety on their own can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible. By seeking support now rather than after the holidays, patients can have an opportunity to have help in preparing for holiday activities and traditions, and to practice challenging situations and conversations that may come up with family and friends. Treatment before the holidays can also be helpful in talking together with family or loved ones along with the support of a therapist, in order to create a plan for the holiday.

Are there many college students struggling with mental health disorders?

Dr. Dlugosz: Many changes during this timeframe occur including transitions to school sometimes far from home, academic pressures, being away from supports, exploring who one is, and finding out where one fits in the college/university setting can all create anxiety that some individuals turn to disordered behaviors to support with.  Unfortunately, many students don’t have access to the specialized care they need, may be scared to take the necessary steps to receive mental health services based on stigma or simply may not know their symptoms/behaviors are problematic or lead to serious medical complications.

Dr. Hansen: Mental health disorders are extremely prevalent among college students but have a very low rate of students seeking help or treatment. The transition from home to college is characterized by loss and decreased structure. Feelings of loneliness, uncertainty about the future, and fear are all normal reactions to beginning college. Couple all of that with experiencing college in the middle of a global pandemic, symptoms seem to be amplified and pronounced, now more than ever. Virtual programming allows college students the opportunity to take part in treatment, while lessening the stigma associated with doing so.

Why is it important to get treatment rather than navigating it alone?

Dr. Dlugosz: Mental health disorders can be very isolating illnesses related to the shame that individuals often feel secondary to behavioral engagement.  There is immense power in the validation that you are not alone in this process. Engaging in a treatment program built on the foundation of group treatment creates the space for that validation. Receiving psychoeducation on symptoms an individual is experiencing, exploring precipitating and perpetuating factors, how co-morbidities impact their disordered behavioral patterns in a safe setting where they can practice skills and vulnerability and know that others around them have had similar experiences helps to build self-compassion and motivation to maintain in treatment and build a sustainable recovery.

Dr. Hansen: It is so important to address concerns related to mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders, sooner rather than later. In doing so, the patient is creating a support system of people experiencing similar things, at a time when they might feel most alone. Treatment will allow patients to interrupt maladaptive behavior quickly and be held accountable by their team. It is important now, more than ever, to ask for support and begin connecting with others struggling with similar issues. Getting treatment now allows patients to connect with providers and the ability to create structure, while also utilizing resources that offer connection.  

Learn more about virtual treatment for mood, anxiety and trauma-related disorders.

Written by

Heather Dlugosz, MD, CEDS

Dr. Dlugosz, an Eating Recovery Center, Cincinnati staff psychiatrist, has experience with the treatment of eating, mood and anxiety disorders in adolescents and adults. She has been with Eating…
Written by

Rebecca Hansen, Ph.D. 

Dr. Rebecca Hansen is the Clinical Manager of Eating Disorder Services at ERC and Pathlight in Chicago. She has worked with ERC since 2014 in all levels of care. She earned her Ph.D. in Counseling…
Written by

Anne Kubal, PhD

Dr. Anne Kubal is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Director of Clinical Training at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in Illinois. She earned her master’s degree…