Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) is awarding $1.54 million to East Carolina University (ECU) to provide telepsychiatry services over the next five years for students at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). This partnership expands behavioral health care services at ECSU at a time when mental health concerns on college campuses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are surging.
Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are being diagnosed at high rates. An estimated 1 in 4 Americans ages 18 and older have a mental disorder in any one year. The challenges associated with attending college, such as academic pressure, can trigger symptoms or cause the first onset of behavioral health and substance use problems in students. Higher education institutions are uniquely positioned to provide behavioral health support for students alongside physical heath, academic, professional and social services.
“Through collaborative efforts with partners like ECU and ECSU, we're able expand quality behavioral health care services across the state,” said Dr. Nora Dennis, lead medical director of behavioral health and health equity at Blue Cross NC. “In order to improve the health and well-being of all North Carolinians, we must equally address physical and behavioral health needs. That’s why our goal is to improve access to behavioral health care in rural and underserved communities by 25% in five years.”
The investment from Blue Cross NC bolsters the ECU-led North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry Program (NC-STeP) which connects patients in hospital emergency departments and community-based settings with expert psychiatric care using telehealth technology. NC-STeP enhances access to behavioral health care, especially in North Carolina’s rural communities, such as Pasquotank County where ECSU is located. Telepsychiatry helps address the shortage of providers for patients who otherwise may not have access to services, all while reducing unnecessary hospital admissions and improving after-care and patient outcomes.
“With this investment from Blue Cross NC, ECU will embed a behavioral health provider, linked via telepsychiatry to a clinical psychiatrist, for case consultations and care planning at the Student Health Center at ECSU,” said Dr. Sy Saeed, director of the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry and founding executive director of NC-STeP. “This resource will benefit students by improving access to behavioral health care, reducing the need for trips to the emergency department and inpatient admissions and reducing delays in diagnosis. The psychiatrist will also be available to the patient’s primary care provider for diagnostic and treatment recommendations. We are emphasizing the total health care needs of the patient so that optimum adherence can be achieved with medications and illness self-management.”
“Students need a place to share things that upset, frighten, confuse, or thrill them, and these added telepsychiatry services will help us support more students directly on campus,” said Dr. Gary Brown, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, which oversees the Student Health Center. “These funds will allow ECSU to expand our nurse practitioner coverage on campus from 24 to 32 hours, and NC-STeP will augment the traditional models of professional counseling and preventive services we provide to students adjusting to the demands of college life.”
ECSU currently offers a wide range of professional counseling, preventive and psycho-educational services to enrolled students adjusting to the demands of college life. This includes resources that address the psychological, developmental and academic needs of students through counseling, faculty, staff, student and family consultation and peer education and outreach programming, as well as Therapy Assistance Online (TAO).
NC-SteP was developed through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Rural Health and Community Care. Since the program’s inception, more than 48,000 psychiatry assessments have been completed, resulting in more than 7,300 involuntary commitments overturned. The program currently serves 39 hospital emergency departments and 18 community sites across North Carolina with five new community sites planned for spring 2022. Dr. Sy Saeed serves as the founding director of both NC-STeP and the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry and e-Behavioral Health, and will lead the Blue Cross NC-funded project in partnership with ECSU.