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Christopher Lucas, MD, MPH, is the founder of the SUNY Student Tele-Counseling Network.

Mental health network for SUNY students, with care provided by Upstate, about to expand due to increased need

Upstate Medical University is now providing mental health services to hundreds of SUNY students at nearly a dozen campuses across the state. Citing an ongoing increase in need, those services will soon expand to an additional five SUNY campuses for a total of 18 schools involved in the program.

Christopher Lucas, MD, MPH, launched the SUNY Student Tele-Counseling Network in January 2018 with four partner campuses. The network expanded to eight in the fall of 2018, to 10 in the fall of 2019 and to 11 just last month. The network provides counseling and psychiatry services to 11 campuses and will expand to five more by the end of the year. Currently all service providers are based at Upstate. SUNY Downstate is joining the network to provide services to students at the five new campuses.

Here’s how the network operates: Students in need of mental health services at partner campuses contact their student counseling center. A mental health services coordinator on campus refers the student to the SUNY-STCN program, which is comprised of a variety of mental health professionals at Upstate. That team is comprised of Lucas (a psychiatrist), Robbi Saletsky, PhD (a psychologist), three nurse practitioners and 14 Upstate psychiatry residents.

The student makes an appointment with an STCN clinician, which takes place in a secure online meeting room. Some online appointments take place at the student’s on-campus counseling center or can be conducted at a mutually agreed private location. The first visit usually lasts about an hour and each subsequent visit lasts about 30 minutes. The student’s needs determine how often they should be seen, Lucas said. He noted that ideally the student will transition to an in-person, off campus mental health professional as one is available.

The STCN, which provides its services to SUNY students free of charge, was created to provide more immediate and advanced mental health services at a time when mental health professionals and psychiatry care are in high demand. Lucas said it can sometimes take up to seven months to secure an appointment with a mental health professional. The tele-psychiatry program can also prescribe and manage medications for students, Lucas said.

Upstate has seen the demand for services through the STCN continue to increase every year, with an even greater uptick since the pandemic, Lucas said. The breakdown of appointments are as follows: January to July 2018: 115 appointments; July 2018 to July 2019: 675 appointments; July 2019 to July 2020: 1,139 appointments.

The STCN’s ability to schedule virtual visits and to be able to offer appointment times on evenings and weekends in the future, are attractive to college students, Lucas said.  

Leah Wentworth, PhD, MPH, is director of student wellness for SUNY. She’s been working with Lucas to expand the network to more SUNY campuses. The services will be especially helpful to SUNY students this year because of the ongoing pandemic and the adjusted academic calendar, which means many students will be away from campus from Thanksgiving to as long as February. She noted that SUNY students may seek an appointment with the STCN at any time.

“There are a number of ways that need has increased,” Wentworth said. “Some of our counseling centers have had double-digit increases in requests for formal appointments. So, any support we can create around our counseling centers is going to help them and their students.”

Wentworth and Lucas stressed how the program is helping students on both sides of the appointment.

“We’re excited that we’re both supporting SUNY students but also training SUNY practitioners,” Wentworth said. “This program has been designed to really help our students as they are now, but to also help the next generation of SUNY physicians and health care professionals.”

Clinical staff at Upstate currently service students at the following SUNY schools: Binghamton, Cobleskill, Fredonia, Morrisville, Nassau Community College, New Paltz, Onondaga Community College, Oneonta, Poly and Potsdam. The five schools expected to join the network by the end of the year are being finalized.

CAPTION: Upstate Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Christopher Lucas, MD, MPH, launched the SUNY Student Tele-Counseling Network in January 2018 with four partner campuses. The network is about to expand to 18. Here he demonstrates what a virtual visit would look like.