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Boynton pushes for text-based mental health help

The grant-funded messaging service would resemble a crisis line.

Boynton Health Service is investigating another way to address the ever-increasing demand for mental health resources on the University of Minnesota campus.

This time, it’s catering to what often seems like the crux of college students’ lives — the mobile phone.

Boynton hopes to give more students access to the help they need by offering mental health intervention services through text messaging. Researchers are applying for a grant to help develop and evaluate the project, but they plan to keep exploring the idea even without receiving funding.

The text message-based intervention would resemble a crisis call line, where students could send a text to staff members whether they just wanted advice or were in a crisis, said Boynton Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Christenson.

Researchers still have questions they want answered, he said, like whether staff members receiving texts should be health professionals or if trained volunteers could also be utilized. He said a similar program staffed with professionals who supervise volunteers has been successful.

Carlton County Public Health and Human Services in northern Minnesota implemented the TXT4LIFE program in 2011, which allows young people to text a trained counselor and receive support. The program’s main goal is to prevent suicides.

In addition to providing a way for students to text for help, Christenson said, Boynton could also use the system to send alerts, advice or other health information to students. 

About half of students who should use mental health resources aren’t accessing them, Christenson said, and this project could help increase use.

“We’re trying to look at other ways to kind of bring that access right to the person who needs it,” he said. “It seemed like an intriguing thing to add on to the services that we already offer.”

Students are “very comfortable” sharing information through text messages, said Boynton’s Director and Chief Health Officer Ferd Schlapper, which makes texting a good medium for mental health intervention.

He said the team got the idea for the program from a TED Talk about how texting can save lives.

“This is the way to really connect with young people,” he said.

Meeting demand

The texting initiative is part of a wider effort to meet the large and growing student demand for mental health resources on campus.

Christenson said the demand increases by about 5 percent every year.

The uptick has created waitlists to see Boynton’s mental health counselors.

To combat wait times, Boynton has worked to offer new ways to address students’ mental health concerns before they need to sign up for a counseling session.

Last spring, it offered the first Cirque De-Stress, an entertainment event where students can learn about stress management.

Since then, Boynton has opened a new mental health clinic on the St. Paul campus, hired more mental health staff and introduced a weekly event where students can take a break from their worries to pet animals.

The event, called Pet Away Worry and Stress attracted hundreds of students during its first two weeks, Christenson said.

The efforts — including texting-based intervention — all serve to alleviate some of the pressure placed on Boynton’s mental health services, he said.

“There’s so many different ways that we need to address this,” Christenson said. “I do think [the texting program] is going to make a difference, along with some of the other things that we’re trying to do to increase mental health resources on campus.”

Some students agree that a texting-based intervention would be a step in the right direction.

Economics senior William Kaye said that because students text “on a daily basis,” he thinks they’d be open to a texting program.

Retail merchandising senior Brittany Herbst said she personally wouldn’t want to use texting to talk about her problems.

Because texts can be saved, a conversation with a staff member wouldn’t necessarily be confidential, she said.

Although she has personal misgivings, Herbst said she thinks some students might prefer a texting intervention line if they would feel uncomfortable discussing their issues over the phone.

Texting could be more appealing to students, she said, “since everybody’s on their phone anyway.”

Getting the grant

Boynton is seeking a grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a group the U.S. Congress charged with providing funding to improve health care.

Although Boynton submitted an application for funding earlier this year that the institute denied, it will apply again by mid-January, said Dave Golden, Boynton’s director of public health and communications.

Boynton received feedback on the rejected application, Schlapper said, which will help make the next one stronger.

PCORI will notify Boynton of its final decision regarding its grant application early this summer, Golden said. The maximum amount Boynton can request is $1.5 million, he said, and it will request nearly that much.

The money would help the team analyze how effective the program is.

Even if they don’t receive the grant, Schlapper said, researchers at Boynton are still interested in considering the texting-based intervention.

“If we get it, we’ll go forward. If we don’t get it, we’ll rethink our strategy,” Christenson said. “We do want to explore this as an option for students.”


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