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UT Austin program brings virtual therapy to middle and high school students

A children's mood board with illustrations showing different emotions
Gabriel C. Pérez

UT Austin’s Institute for Public School Initiatives has launched a pilot program that offers on-demand virtual therapy to more than 11,000 students in public schools in Texas.

“This has long been a salient issue that we knew needed supplemental support, especially in underserved, low-income and rural school districts,” IPSI Executive Director Matt Orem said.

In all of the school districts chosen for the pilot, at least 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Several Central Texas districts are participating, including Del Valle ISD, Lockhart ISD and San Marcos CISD.

The program is in partnership with MDLIVE, a telehealth and virtual therapy provider.

UT and MDLIVE helped participating schools create private spaces on campus where students between the ages of 10 and 18 can access care with a parent's permission. Students who sign up to participate create an account with the service and choose a therapist based on their needs, comfort level and preferred language. During a student's first appointment, a parent is required to be in the room for the first and last 15 minutes of the session. The program's therapists can also coordinate with local resources if they determine a student is in crisis or needs additional support.

Students experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression might use the program's services, along with kids who have experienced trauma. But Orem said therapists can also help students work through common challenges like stress over schoolwork and testing.

"Mental health is not just for people that are in crisis or trauma," he said. "We hope that every student who's offered this opportunity will take advantage of it."

Orem said the program is intended to help district counseling staff, especially as mental health struggles are rising in youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared child and adolescent mental health to be a national emergency in 2021, citing an uptick in emergency department visits during the pandemic.

“We would like to see a climate change where the school is really addressing behavioral mental health and taking that seriously,” Orem said. “We hope that overall, we will just see an increase in the mental well-being of students.”

The program opened up appointments for the first time in February — several weeks earlier than planned — after a student was killed in an accident in the parking lot of San Marcos CISD’s Goodnight Middle School.

Dr. Eric Weil, chief medical officer for MDLIVE, said the quick response to provide care following the tragedy was an example of how the program can operate in crises.

“When something occurs, we are able to mobilize very quickly," Weil said.

Program leaders at UT plan to follow a group of sixth- and seventh-graders through graduation and into their first year after high school, with funding from a U.S. Department of Education grant. If the 11 participating Texas school districts choose to do so, they can also seek out independent funding to open the services to more students.

Data will be collected on student performance to measure the effectiveness of the program, in accordance with district-approved, data-use agreements.

"We take the security of the student information that we need for the grant to be successful very, very seriously," Orem said.

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Olivia Aldridge is KUT's health care reporter. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @ojaldridge.
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