Can the digital world help us harness positive mental health?

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day took place on 3rd March 2016.  Nurturing our psycho-social as well as our physical health is crucial to our human experience.  It impacts on all aspects of our life, including our educational and vocational experience as learners and as employees.  In 2013 the NUS carried out a Mental Distress Survey, they found that 92 % of students reported feeling of mental distress. gingerbread men

Having worked in the field of mental health before moving into education this is an area that interests me, and inspired me to look at the role that technology could play. I did some scoping to look at what kinds of initiatives existed and where technology was used to support positive mental health.   Advances in technology offer real potential to empower people to access information when they need it, and to help them manage their own health.  The University of Sheffield Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH) have identified technology as a way to help promote and to manage positive mental health.

Does mobile technology have a part to play?

The ubiquitous nature of mobile technologies provides opportunities to manage many aspects of our life, including our mental health. Ginsberg is a joint project between the Scottish Government, NHS 24 and New Media. Based on a model which is familiar to many of us where we use apps to track aspects of our life (such as activity levels or diet), this app allows people to track their mood, record feelings, thoughts emotions and understand how events and behaviours affect the way people feel and how this correlates with external factors such as sleep, exercises, alcohol consumption etc. Apps such as Headspace provide options for people to engage in simple meditation and mindfulness in a way that is discrete and in a manner that suits the individual. Websites such as Aye Mind identify apps, digital tools and other resources to support mental wellbeing for young people. Mindcharity have curated a list of apps for well-being and mental health which can provide pointers and help people research apps or resources that meet their needs.

Mental health innovations in education

Many educational institutions have created their own apps, and engaged in their own innovative approaches to support positive mental health. The Glasgow Caledonian University positive living app and the University of the West of England self-help anxiety management (SAM) app are two very good examples of such. Others have engaged in activities that provide different kinds of ‘hooks’ for example last year The University of Edinburgh used gaming as a way of raising awareness, they developed an on-line game called Superbetter which was designed to build resilience each day to help people manage life’s challenges more effectively.  Edge Hill University have delivered ‘Digital Mindfulness’ workshops for staff and students. In this series of workshops they address the issues of digital distress, distraction and take time to unpack the ‘unhealthy’ relationships people often have with their technology.  This approach acknowledges the risk that we all have in becoming too immersed, or possibly less in control of our use of technology to a point where it causes cognitive overload, ‘digital addiction’ or even FOMO (fear of missing out).

Supporting cognitive overload

I was following some of the #UniMentalHealthDay tweets this week, and noticed concerns that heavy workloads, difficulties in managing work/study, poor work-life balance and isolation are triggers of mental distress.  Maybe there are opportunities to think about how students and staff can take advantage of many of the tools that are often seen as ‘assistive technologies’ available across our institutional networks as ways of helping to manage our workload and cope with cognitive overload. For example, many organisiations provide text to speech software and mind mapping software across their networks, and it is worth considering if these are tools could support ways of enhancing productivity.  In addition there are an increasing number of no cost/low cost enabling solutions.  The emergence of apps, browser based productivity tools and free technologies can help plan our work, manage our time, provide us with prompts, remind us to take regular breaks and to look after ourselves.

Supporting an inclusive learner experience in higher education.

Margaret McKay


2 replies on “Can the digital world help us harness positive mental health?”

I have also found using moodtracker tools/apps useful to see if the stress directly correlated to particular types of work, life events, etc.

Jennifer, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess like other apps that help up gauge aspects of our lifestyle and habits (such as exercise and healthy eating), mood tracker apps allow us to document our psycho-social health and correlate this to events, experiences and external stimuli.

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