On Aug. 3, from her home in Seattle, Washington, Communication second-year Jillian Olson turned on her computer, opened up the TimelyCare website and went to therapy for the first time. Since then, Olson has completed six more TimelyCare therapy sessions.
“If I was going to an in-person therapist, it would probably be a lot harder for me to travel to get to them, and that would also then cost me money on top of therapy being expensive,” Olson says. “[TimelyCare] being so immediately available is very helpful to me, and you’re not limited to therapists in your area.”
TimelyCare, a 24/7 virtual third-party mental health care platform, provides students with free on-demand and appointment-based access to mental health professionals. Northwestern students can now access year-round support anywhere through phone or video calls using the TimelyCare app or its desktop website.
For both on-demand and schedule-based counseling, students check boxes for topics they’d like to discuss such as relationship concerns, depression or substance abuse. They then choose either a phone call or video chat to meet and talk about their selected concerns. Virtual group meditation, yoga sessions and health coaching for sleep, nutrition and stress management are also available. Katie Neal, assistant vice president of media relations for TimelyCare’s parent company TimelyMD, says Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students have used the platform’s services almost 1,500 times since the Northwestern-TimelyCare partnership began in April.
The implementation of TimelyCare comes after efforts to reform the inaccessibility of Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the University’s primary mental health services platform. Dr. Shenay Bridges-Carter, CAPS’ director of clinical services, describes the addition of TimelyCare as a supplement to CAPS rather than a replacement.
“With TimelyCare, [it’s about] having options for students to receive mental health care and to know that CAPS does not have to be the only option that students have for receiving mental health treatment,” Bridges-Carter says.
“With TimelyCare, [it’s about] having options for students to receive mental health care and to know that CAPS does not have to be the only option that students have for receiving mental health treatment.”CAPS director of clinical services Dr. Shenay Bridges-Carter
McCormick fourth-year Sahibzada Mayed and other founding members launched Reform CAPS on Instagram in May 2021 to share undergraduate experiences and advocate for administrative change within CAPS. Mayed views TimelyCare as a temporary fix to mental health issues within the Northwestern community and says there still isn’t a dedicated intersectional organization for student mental health. The addition of TimelyCare did not meet all of Reform CAPS’ demands, which included hiring more diverse staff, reducing appointment wait times and requiring transparency on CAPS’ budget, average wait times and staff demographics.
“TimelyCare really just felt like a slap in the face as well as a band-aid solution that is not really solving the core of the problem,” Mayed says.
Reform CAPS’ emphasis on clinician diversity comes at a time of increasing strife for college students of color nationwide. A 2021 study led by Dr. Sarah Lipson at Boston University found that from 2013-2021, college students of color had the lowest rates of mental health service utilization compared to their peers. Rates of depression and anxiety in all college students also increased by 135% and 108%, respectively, in the same timespan.
TimelyMD Senior Client Success Manager Abby Waldron says their platform’s on-demand support option, called “Talk Now,” does not allow students to choose who they speak to. However, for scheduled appointments, students are given a biography, photo and specialty information for each available clinician. She emphasizes that TimelyCare is constantly evolving to meet student needs.
According to data provided by TimelyMD, the average wait time for TimelyCare’s “Talk Now” option is five minutes, and 40% of visits this year have been “after hours,” or outside the 9 a.m.-5 p.m. window.
“Our team follows up with each student 48 hours after the visit, and they could share any feedback there or any questions,” Waldron says. “They can always reach out to our 24/7 customer support team. We look into feedback; we want to make sure we’re offering the best virtual care possible.”
TimelyCare’s terms and conditions state that by signing up for the platform, students agree to let TimelyCare share medical (including mental health and psychotherapy) records to their university, but only licensed professionals can access them. Their information is not disclosed unless there is a safety concern, at which point CAPS steps in to provide additional assistance immediately.
For non-emergency situations, CAPS has two options for mental health care: appointment-based and same-day access. However, as of Oct. 31, the CAPS website shows no available phone appointments within the next two weeks. It suggests students call for a same-day virtual meeting while continuing to check for future availability.
Bridges-Carter acknowledges that Northwestern’s mental health services have limitations but says that CAPS uses its resources to help students as much as possible.
“Even if telehealth isn’t your thing or you don’t find a therapist that you’re soulmates with, just having something to help right now is a really important thing that I think a lot more people on campus should take advantage of.”Jillian Olson, Communication second-year
“We definitely recognize that we are unable to meet everyone’s needs 24/7,” Bridges-Carter says. “We do at our core have a desire and a willingness to be as helpful to student as we can and to provide quality mental health services.”
Even though TimelyCare doesn’t solve all of the issues within Northwestern mental health services, Olson says it can alleviate stress on students’ well-being.
“Even if telehealth isn’t your thing or you don’t find a therapist that you’re soulmates with, having something to help right now is a really important thing that I think a lot more people on campus should take advantage of,” Olson says.