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The hidden health crisis on campus

How technology can improve students’ mental well-being
University Business, December 2016

Technology can be a powerful resource for behavioral health care. It grants a level of comfort and anonymity to those who have questions or concerns about their mental health, making it easier to reach people who otherwise might not seek help.

Telehealth solutions—like patients meeting their therapists for sessions over Skype or using mood tracking mobile apps in tandem with treatment—are growing in popularity. A number of vendors are expanding telehealth services to support psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and their patients this year. For colleges and universities, leveraging technology to provide mental health and well-being resources can help campus counseling centers that are already stretched thin reach more students in need of support.

Reaching out

As a counselor on a college campus, I speak to many students dealing with the pressure, stress and anxiety of school. But the patients I see aren’t the ones who keep me up at night. I worry more about the students who didn’t come to see me. I know they are out there, but despite our best efforts, I did not know how to reach them.

This is the crux of a hidden crisis happening on college campuses, a crisis of well-being. One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness, but research shows 40 percent won’t seek help. Students often wait until they are in crisis to seek help. By then, they’re tapping into a fragmented system that is already maxed out.

It’s also common for students, especially freshmen, to assume that the challenges and stress they’re experiencing are just part of college life. Behaviors like binge drinking and having difficulties with sleep are often dismissed as “normal” aspects of college life. Students don’t think of the repercussions these experiences have on their mental and physical wellness.

This is troubling when you consider that last year, 85 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities and approximately half of students said they’ve experienced incapacitating levels of stress. Most concerning is the fact that suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among college students, with over 1,100 student deaths by suicide each year.

More pressure

Getting students to reach out early is half the battle. It’s far easier to help a student dealing with stress or mild depression than it is to treat a student after they’ve reached a major crisis. With colleges strapped for money and resources, technology presents an opportunity to reach these students early on through creative and customized interventions.

Pairing technology with an upstream approach to address mental health has many benefits, specifically with college populations. Today’s traditional college students are digital natives. When it comes to finding answers to mental health questions, the internet is the first place they turn.

Having the ability to empower the students who never came to see me as a counselor is what ultimately inspired me to join a digital health company. It’s my ethical responsibility, and the responsibility of colleges and universities, to make technology-based preventative care and early interventions part of a school’s counseling and overall wellness system.

If we don’t take this action, the risks are dire. Sixty-two percent of individuals under the age of 35 who die by suicide never see a mental health provider. Additionally, 90 percent of these individuals experience depression, which can be treated by counseling staff on campus. With the majority of behavioral health conditions surfacing between the ages of 18 and 24, it is vital that students are health literate and feel comfortable reaching out for support.

Further, if students are left on their own to find resources, many will turn to Google and YouTube, but simple browser searches can lead them to unqualified — and even harmful — advice. That’s why reaching students proactively through school-sanctioned digital platforms that include resources backed by clinical experts is critical. It is the only way colleges and universities can provide students a direct line to quality resources.

Using this upstream approach, colleges and universities can address the well-being crisis much more effectively and provide guidance and support services regarding mental health. Most importantly, they can use technology to make a shift from a reactive stance to a proactive approach that prevents crises before they occur, making a more meaningful impact on the overall well-being and success of all students.

Nathaan Demers is director of clinical programs at Grit Digital Health

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