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Martha Neary is the Project Manager of PsyberGuide, with a background in psychology and child development. Her areas of interest include the integration of technology into mental health interventions, healthcare disparities among minority populations, and early education, particularly in the areas of health and sexuality.

At PsyberGuide, we’ve been thinking a lot about how digital tools might be especially useful for  college student mental health. Last month, I attended the 8th Annual College Mental Health Research Symposium, hosted by the Healthy Minds Network at the University of Michigan. This wonderfully diverse meeting of people invested in college mental health, including researchers, practitioners, advocates and students, reinforced three points which drive PsyberGuide’s interest in college student mental health: students are digital natives and tech-savvy, they have high need for mental health resources, and may be less interested in traditional mental health treatments compared to other, more innovative, resources.

Students use technology on a daily, if not constant, basis. A recent study1 found that students average just under 530 minutes of cell phone use per day – in other words, students spend nearly 9 hours a day on their cell phone. Most of this time is spent texting, calling, emailing, using social media and streaming music. 88% of college-aged Americans use at least once social media platform2. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, a staggering 78% are SnapChat users and 94% use YouTube3. Students also use technology to help them meet their educational needs: 65% of students say that digital learning technology is helpful in their education4. It’s clear that technology is heavily ingrained in the lives of U.S. students, meaning there are fewer obstacles to adoption or use; they are already using technology in many ways.

Mental health issues are common among students. The Healthy Minds 2016-2017 Survey showed that 36% of all students had a diagnosis of a mental disorder. Compared to the national average, millennials (a category into which most U.S. students fall) are more likely to screen positive for depression. Although college mental health systems continue to focus on face-to-face therapies, we see from data collected by Mental Health America5 that young people don’t necessarily want traditional therapies. An affinity towards technology, high rates of mental health challenges, and ambivalence towards traditional treatments all point towards a digital mental health system being an excellent option for students.

So what does an ideal digital mental health system for college students look like?

•  It’s tailored for individual students & campuses

It’s not groundbreaking to say that digital tools need to be relevant to the target population for which they aim to serve. But it seems that college students may want tools which are tailored to their individual campus, not just to their demographic. “Bliss: Harvard Mental Health” is one resource which compiles dozens of mental health resources specific to the Harvard campus. This is a wonderful resource, if you’re a Harvard student, but it’s unlikely that every campus will develop their own digital tool tailored to their students. The schools that have the resources to do so are likely to already be advantaged in other ways, further widening the disparities in college mental health care.  The challenge here is to identify the commonalities and differences between campuses – what needs are common to all college students? What resources will be useful across the board? What are the resources that need to be tailored on a campus-by-campus basis?

•  Students can be involved in the design process

Given their tech-savvy nature, the best people to design digital mental health tools for students may be students themselves. Some great resources have come from student-led initiatives in app development. Harvard’s Bliss app was developed by students Caitlin Ner and Tajrean Rahman during an “appathon” contest in which students has 24 hours to build an app.  ZenCare, a digital program that aims to help students find a therapist, was designed by Brown University alum Yuri Tomikawa, and the therapists listed have all have been referred by people affiliated with Brown, including students. These are just two examples which show the creativity and utility that can come from including students in the design process of mental health tools.  

• It simplifies access for students

Many student-focused digital tools require the user do as little work as possible to receive information or supports, even offering these supports based on location. Project IntERact, which is being developed by University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center (UMIPC), will provide reminders for students who screen positive for substance misuse and firearm possession based on their proximity to locations previously determined as “high risk” (e.g. places where they previously had altercations). While this app has yet to be tested, it seems that this ‘minimal effort’ approach may be a good strategy overall for digital supports for students.

We think that college students will be willing to use technology in their mental health care. However, they will likely need to be guided through this process, and may not have the time to spend searching for the right technologies – this is where resources like PsyberGuide can help. PsyberGuide is one tool that could support toolboxes like Bliss. We’re excited to try to get PsyberGuide more present on campuses and to feature resources that can help improve college student mental health.

 

    1. Roberts, J., Yaya, L., & Manolis, C. (2014). The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 3(4), 254-265.
    2. Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center
    3. Social Media Use in 2018, Pew Research Center
    4.  The Net Generation and Digital Natives
    5. Screenings to Supports (S2s), Mental Health America

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