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Notre Dame offers TAO as free mental health resource

| Thursday, February 28, 2019

Psychology Today reports that in a 2013 survey of college students, 57 percent of women and 40 percent of men experienced bouts of “overwhelming anxiety,” and 33 percent of women and 27 percent of men reported feeling depressed to the point of difficultly functioning in that past year.

Notre Dame is devoting resources to try to help students through this mental-health crisis, and its latest attempt to aid students is through a partnership with Therapist Assisted Online (TAO) that is free to students.

Although the University Counseling Center (UCC) offers a variety of counseling resources, the founder of TAO, Dr. Sherry Benton, recognized a gap in the resources available at universities in the United States.

“I was the director of a large counseling center at a large university [University of Florida] and we could never keep up with demands,” Benton said. “We tried everything — we had groups, we had workshops, we had self-help materials. Still, we could never keep up with demand. As a matter of fact, one year we got four new positions, but it only gave us two more weeks without a waitlist.”

Benton said the biggest concern with this situation was that not being able to assist students in a timely manner would begin impacting their abilities to be students.

“If you make somebody wait five weeks to start treatment for depression, they are going to lose their whole semester. That’s not OK,” she said. “Because of the waitlist situation, we were inadvertently in a position of deciding who was going to flourish and who was going to fail based entirely on the date that they sought help.”

Benton said she looked for programs she could buy for her university, but could not find anything at another university in the country that she believed would work. So, she started looking at programs in Europe, and saw they were pairing online educational materials with brief 15- to 20-minute therapy sessions.

“I couldn’t find a system I could just borrow or buy, so we decided we would make one at my university,” she said. “We created a prototype anxiety treatment, and when we offered it to students, one of the things that happened was the students that did the online system with brief sessions with a therapist did better than the ones who did weekly, face-to-face, 50-minute psychotherapy, and at that point we realized it was a great thing. … Then we added more and more materials, we licensed it to more and more universities and then we started licensing to more types of places.”

TAO is currently available at about 130 universities around the nation, which is not including the other companies and businesses that also have access to the self-help tool. Although it was originally intended to be a supplement to counseling, Benton said students can also access it as a form of self-help without going into therapy or the counseling center, as a way to cope with anxiety, depression or a wide variety of other issues.

“TAO has about 400 [videos] and a couple hundred interactive exercises addressing a whole variety of common issues for adults, but particularly, it started with college students,” she said. “It is intended to be not a replacement for therapy, but good tools for people who want self-help, and a good adjunct for people who are in some kind of counseling.”

Students can go to the UCC website to find guidance on how to begin TAO. Students first can set up an account, and then pick which topic and corresponding enrollment key they need. There are topics from “Leave Your Blues Behind” to “Interpersonal Relationships and Communication” to “Anger Management.”

Although Benton and the UCC encourage students to reach out to qualified professionals if they need it, TAO can still be an available resource for those who are busy and just want a little extra help.

According to the UCC website’s page on TAO, the program aims to “help you learn about struggles common to college students and to develop helpful strategies for navigating these challenges.”

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a junior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, which is not the middle of nowhere, and serves as an Associate News Editor for the Observer.

Contact Mariah