Partnering with East Carolina University to expand youth access to mental health care services

February 14, 2023 | 5 min Read
  • $3.2M United Health Foundation grant will support the mental health and well-being of underserved youth in North Carolina.

As part of an ongoing commitment to address youth mental health challenges, the United Health Foundation has announced a three-year, $3.2 million grant partnership with East Carolina University (ECU). This commitment will expand the North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry Program (NC-STeP), in the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry, to support the mental health and well-being of youth in North Carolina. 

NC-STeP was established in 2013 and has completed more than 56,000 psychiatry assessments in hospital emergency departments and has served more than 14,000 patients in its 23-community primary care settings. The expansion will provide mental health care services to underserved children and adolescents in six community-based pediatric and primary care clinics in rural and underserved parts of the state.


“Mental health – including psychological, emotional and social well-being – is a vital part of a child’s overall health. This expanded program will provide access to mental health services for children in their established pediatric or primary care setting, removing stigma sometimes associated with mental health care, and, through telemedicine, will offer expert consultation support for clinicians.”

Dr. Sy Saeed | director of the ECU Center for Telepsychiatry and founding executive director of NC-STeP

By the numbers

The 2022 America’s Health Rankings Health of Women and Children Report revealed increases in youth mental health challenges, specifically finding nationally, among children ages 3-17, anxiety increased 23%, while depression increased 27% between 2017-2018 and 2020-2021. 

In North Carolina, children experience significant challenges accessing the care needed to address their mental health.  

More than 70% of children in North Carolina with a mental health disorder do not receive treatment and 92 out of 100 counties in the state are designated as mental health professional shortage areas.   

This partnership will help connect youth with mental health services in areas with provider shortages. 


“We have a significant shortage of mental health professionals in North Carolina. In fact, most of our communities do not have even one child psychiatrist to help primary care providers care for the children with the most serious mental health conditions.”

Dr. Dave Tayloe, Jr. | MD, FAAP, Goldsboro Pediatrics, North Carolina


“We’re honored and excited to partner with East Carolina University to address key health challenges our young people are facing. By working together and creating an interconnected system of clinical and social services, we can continue to produce better health outcomes for North Carolinians.”

Anita Bachmann | CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of North Carolina, part of UnitedHealth Group


With the help of the United Health Foundation grant, ECU will: 

  • Embed behavioral health providers at six community-based pediatric care clinics and connect them – as well as the primary care providers – to a psychiatrist for case consultation and care planning via telepsychiatry.

  • Develop an artificial intelligence-driven portal to enhance collaboration between health care providers and encourage family members’ engagement in their child’s mental health care.  

  • Educate children and families about mental health and well-being through the development of a new virtual reality video game that provides anonymous peer-to-peer support. 

  • Offer training opportunities for ECU psychiatry residents, child psychiatry fellows, social work students, medical students and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners at the six community clinics.  

  • Hold an Interdisciplinary Telehealth Summit to disseminate learnings from the project.

"Just like we take care of our physical health, it’s important that we take care of our mental health as well. This partnership will help reach even more young people in our rural and historically underserved communities."

Roy Cooper North Carolina Governor

The United Health Foundation and ECU also partnered in 2020 through a $1.25 million grant to expand telepsychiatry services to address the mental health needs of expectant and new mothers. Through the MOTHeRs (Maternal Outreach Using Telehealth for Rural Sites) project, ECU developed and deployed a new obstetric care model for high-risk patients and addressed food insecurity among pregnant women.

Continuing our commitment

This commitment is one of the many ways UnitedHealth Group is working to advance health equity by ensuring every person, regardless of race, place, or circumstance, has the opportunity to live their healthiest life. As of December 2022, UnitedHealth Group is contributing more than $35 million in 18 states and Washington, D.C. to grant partners that are actively addressing youth mental health.