Strengthening Nevada youth mental health through virtual peer support

Two years ago, our team at Optum Behavioral Health reviewed the U.S. Surgeon General’s June 2022 Public Health Report. This report detailed the youth mental health crisis, attributing it to loneliness, isolation, racial and economic inequality as well as the impact of Covid-19.1 Driven to improve the effectiveness of health resources available to youth, our team conducted research to determine which tools would be the most beneficial to address these needs.

We conducted one-on-one interviews with teenagers and young adults who had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, as well as their caregivers. From these interviews, we found that teenagers value anonymity, immediate access to care, the option of a one-off service and simple payment and administrative processes. Additionally, this population is more likely to engage with peer-driven solutions than to reach out to an adult. By understanding the journey young people experience before they reach the health care system, we can be better informed to connecting them with effective resources earlier on. 

With these learnings in mind, UnitedHealthcare Health Plan of Nevada Medicaid is launching a pilot program to bring online peer support to 85,000 high school students in Clark County, Nevada with Supportiv, a virtual peer-to-peer chat service. The program is available to all high school students in Clark County School District regardless of insurance coverage.

Peer support has been found to have beneficial effects on youth mental health. While peer support is not a replacement for therapy, it can be a more affordable and accessible way to access mental and emotional support. Studies show that youth peer support is associated with increased happiness and self-esteem, effective coping strategies and reductions in depression, loneliness and anxiety.2 Research additionally shows that peer support can be an entry point for pursuing counseling: people with a mental health diagnosis who have shared concerns with peers are more likely to seek formal mental health care services.3

In Clark County, a 2021 survey of high school students found that 46% of students felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row, but 62% rarely or never received help.4 57.8% of those students rarely or never talked to an adult at home about their problems, underscoring the need for peer-to-peer support.

Supportiv instantly matches users who share similar challenges into small peer-to-peer groups for live chats, available 24/7 and guided by a trained moderator. The groups address topics like loneliness, grief and self-esteem. The service offers anonymity and does not ask users for any identifying information. Supportiv moderators consist of undergraduate and graduate psychology students who undergo extensive training designed by a clinical psychologist.5

Moderators guide users through a defined conversation arc, pairing opportunities to vent with empathy from the moderator and peers. Skills related to coping, healing and problem solving are highlighted with the goal of participants leaving the chats feeling empowered and energized to move forward. While guiding the conversation, moderators provide personalized resources in real time from a library of 34,000 videos, podcasts, articles and community programs. Engagement data gathered by Supportiv shows the following evidence for the program’s success:

  • Participants stay engaged in chats for an average of 35 minutes with 90% of users leveraging the service multiple times.
  • The highest frequency of use is between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. when other types of resources, such as counseling, are limited.
  • Over 90% of users report feeling better after their initial engagement.
  • The program supports equitable care and underserved populations with 42% of engaged participants being Black, Indigenous and people of color.

UnitedHealthcare Health Plan of Nevada Medicaid strives to support the whole-person health needs of its members. Through the use of internal research and evidence-based peer-to-peer solutions, UnitedHealthcare Health Plan of Nevada Medicaid and Supportiv are creating greater access to mental health support for students of Clark County. 

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