Jul 27 2022

Digital Mental Health Tools Improve Student Well-Being

Custom platforms provide access to student services on campus while offering a “side door” to mental health resources.

Nearly every college student owns some type of mobile device, with one 2015 survey showing that 98 percent of students had one. Smartphone use remains on the rise among children and teenagers, who are, in many cases, growing up on their devices. To meet students and prospective students on those devices, higher education institutions have found ways to bring themselves into the mobile world, whether that’s through the growing field of m-learning or by offering things like real-time parking data through a mobile app.

Meanwhile, concerns over student mental health have also come to the forefront. A recent Student Voice survey of 2,000 undergraduate college students found that 56 percent rated their mental health as “fair” or “poor,” and that 17 percent had experienced the most severe symptom, suicidal ideation, while in college.

Those two realities have led to the creation of a fairly new type of tool for colleges and universities: digital platforms designed to improve student mental health. The most common of these platforms are not intended as an answer to acute mental health crises but are instead focused more broadly on student wellness, helping to manage the everyday stresses that students feel and highlight resources for assistance on college campuses. These tools could help mitigate mental health issues or allow students to better recognize their symptoms.

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Nathaan Demers, a clinical psychiatrist, former college counselor and a vice president at Grit Digital Health, helped develop the YOU at College platform in partnership with Colorado State University. For Demers and others, creating an application students and faculty felt comfortable, safe and secure using was crucial. To get around the stigma associated with using a mental health app or mental health services, they focused on the term “well-being” instead. They built a tool that would provide campus and in-app resources while also sending those in need of counseling or other mental health services upstream toward those options.

“Not every student needs counseling,” says Demers. “If a student is struggling with, let’s say, basic needs, let’s make sure that student can get those needs met. Let’s really help get students through the right doors on campus.”

Protecting User Data Through Aggregation and Anonymity

Because of the negative stigma still attached to mental illness and the use of mental health services, and because of the sensitive nature of the information people may be sharing, providing an app that was 100 percent trustworthy and anonymous was an imperative for the developers at YOU and for the more than 200 colleges and universities that now use the service.

“We knew that if students had any inclination that their educators, their faculty members, their RAs or the folks at the universities who work with them would have access to data indicating whether they’re having a substance abuse problem or some other type of sensitive information, that it would be a huge barrier to using the tool,” says Andrew Baker, vice president of product at Grit Digital. “Student privacy and confidentiality has always been a core, foundational principle, both in the design as well as in the technical software engineering.”

To accomplish that, YOU is typically tied to a university’s single sign-on solution, allowing the platform to authenticate with a firewall that’s already in place to guarantee user privacy.

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Among many other places, the platform has been adopted and vetted by the California State University system, where IT leaders undertook a four-step review of the tool that included a review of YOU’s accessibility, vendors, data security policy and technical launch procedures, according to Candice Chick, who helps manage the platform along with student wellness and mental health at California State University, Long Beach.

Chick adds that the university uses Microsoft Azure as its single sign-on solution as part of a “very tight ship” that Cal State Long Beach runs regarding student data privacy.

In addition to in-depth vetting and single sign-on integration, Baker says YOU’s data storage tool immediately decouples personally identifiable information from data on user behavior. That second set of data, in turn, does get aggregated and shared with the partner universities to help them learn about their students’ interests and needs.

“The university partners that we work with, they really want this rich data about what students are browsing and when they’re browsing, but we deliver that in an anonymized and aggregated way,” says Baker.

Meanwhile, to create a sense of confidence for users, Baker says most colleges and universities are also creating spaces on their domains to house the platform. (At Colorado State, it can be found at you.colostate.edu, for example).

READ MORE: Using technology to improve mental well-being for college students.

Getting Students What They Need, Where They Want It

Chick says that once students are comfortable with the platform, they can use the YOU app to find on-campus jobs, connect with their advisers, track their sleep, watch TED Talks and more.

All of that mobile interaction can help students relax then and there — there are breathing exercises on the platform too — or steer them to the next stop in their journey to better mental health and fitness.

“YOU is advertised on our campus as a one-stop shop where you can explore the opportunity for help,” says Chick. “We want students to know we’re here for them and that there are tools to support them. And if they don’t necessarily want to reach out and meet with someone or be on campus, then they can do it in a virtual way.”

For those who are in acute mental health crisis, the platform does offer links to 24-hour local and national resources like the national suicide prevention lifeline, and the YOU interface includes a button for users to hit if they feel they are in crisis.

Nathaan Demers
If a student is struggling with, let’s say, basic needs, let’s make sure that student can get those needs met. Let’s really help get students through the right doors on campus.”

Nathaan Demers VP Clinical Programs and Strategic Partnerships, GRIT Digital Health

Chick and Demers agree that, for most users, the app serves as an introduction to mental health before they access any kind of in-person or telehealth mental health treatment — something 68 percent of students say they have never done, according to the Student Voice survey.

“Maybe students identify what’s going on with them and say, ‘I just saw that thing about stress management. Maybe I want to go try a support group and go to one of their meetings,’” says Chick. “Maybe it’s a part of their discovery.”

“Most of our users enter looking for help with finances or grades, because what student isn’t concerned about that?” says Demers. “But most visited is all the mental health information on stress, anxiety and sleep. The side door is really important to get students to this content.”

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