How Can We Leverage Technology to Solve College Mental Health?

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of students who begin a bachelor’s degree program do not actually earn a degree within six years.

A survey of students who dropped out of college conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64% of them dropped out because of mental illness. Of those 64%, 45% did not seek help on campus before dropping out.

Why is this?  Colleges are currently spending more money than ever before on collegiate mental health (SUNY just committed another $24 million in funding) but will this help if 45% of students still will not seek help?

From peer reviewed scientific research, we know three facts.  One, as a 2014 study from Berkeley showed (The Sharing Effect | Greater Good (berkeley.edu)),  individuals show significant benefit from simply sharing their feelings with another.  Two, individuals may be more likely to access professional services if encouraged to do so by a peer.  2     Three, individuals may lack the emotional energy to reach out to a peer or loved one when they are struggling or hesitate to do so due to fears of rejection or being viewed as a burden.

Students are constantly on their phones.  Can we leverage this in a way to create peer and family support for our college students, to help guide them to seek professional help?

Imagine this.  Jamie, a college student, is suffering from significant anxiety and depression. She feels heavy pressure from her parents to do well but she also feels pressure to fit in at school.  She feels torn between the peer pressure of social events and the stress incurred from her parents. She feels she may be inadequate to handle her schoolwork but is scared to ask for help.  She constantly fears what will happen if her grades are low.  She worries incessantly and has started drinking to cope with her anxiety. She knows she needs help but doesn’t know who to tell or what to do.  She doesn’t really know how to access the student wellness therapy offerings and she really does not want to tell her troubles to a stranger.  How will they help, she thinks?  They don’t know what my parents are like or what stress I’m under.  She hasn’t made enough close friends at school yet to talk to, plus everyone is too caught up in partying.  She feels lost and alone.

Sadly, Jamie’s story is all too common as we note in Alicia Betz’ personal story at  The State of Mental Health in College Students Today – HIGHER ED CONNECTS  Jamie needs a warm handoff to someone she knows and trusts, who can then encourage her to seek professional help if still needed.   How do we bridge from Jamie’s needs to the professional services the college offers? And how do we secure enough help that we can meet the need of all the Jamies’ at college?  How do we even find out who is suffering and needs help?

Solution:  Although students are not likely to text or a call a friend or family member for help, for the reasons shown above, they do spend a good deal of time online researching their symptoms, taking mood scales and experimenting with mood apps.   What if technology did the hard work of reaching out for them?   A new patent pending app called NeuraBoot promises to do just that, by automatically sending a permission based customized text to a user’s supporter, when the app determines the user is struggling.

Students are more likely to respond once a familiar voice reaches out to them, then they are to actively reach out when they need help.  We need more solutions that incorporate a student’s natural support system, guiding them holistically to the professional services the college can then offer.

College orientation could include these modalities, teaching students ways they can be emotional buddies and peer support each other.   The Jed Foundation  and Active Minds – Changing the conversation about mental health have made great strides at this, but incorporating these strategies with the right technology could be a game changer in a situation where the student lacks motivation to seek help when they need it the most (as is most often the case).   

Often, students just need someone to listen, but they may not seek this out on their own.  This type of resource would give them a safe space to talk through their feelings.  This may be all some students need.  Others may still need professional services. The goal is that it will help all students find some level of help and encourage the ones who need professional help, to receive it.  Such a program would decrease the volume of need for professional services, while better funneling those who really need the help to that resource.

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