The good news about technology and student mental health

The negative effects of technology on young peoples mental health are often written about. Education has become more technology focused, more remote and less personal. But is technology always bad news? Julia Taylor focuses on some of the ways that technology could support better student mental health.

Why should we worry?

Universities and colleges have a duty of care for their students and there is real cause for concern as more graduates disclose they are experiencing psycho-social distress.  Some struggle to thrive in the sometimes challenging environment that further and higher education presents. Difficulties coping with student life can lead to ‘drop out’, the onset of more significant psychological health problems … or worse.

Although many universities acknowledge their role through their wellbeing policies and services, Universities UK has described this as a mental health crisis that risks painting UK universities as ‘toxic environments’. Their StepChange programme sees tackling this as a priority for improving outcomes for students and maintaining standards. The message is one of  ‘self-improvement’.

A whole organisational approach

In line with Government taskforce findings, both UUK StepChange and the Association of Colleges (AoC) ‘mental health toolkit’  advocate a whole organisation approach so that it ‘permeates every aspect of their work and is embedded across all policies, cultures, curricula and practice.’ Technology could be a key resource in augmenting existing support to meet this challenge.

The government’s consultation on the Transforming children and young peoples mental health provision has just closed. Proposals include a mental health lead in every school and college, and trained support teams linking them into specialist services in the NHS. The Mentally Healthy College Community Project at Glasgow Clyde College is a one example – creating an open and supportive culture in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

Getting the message across

One role universities can play is to promote open discussion, approaching mental health pressures as a normal part of student life that should be accommodated and managed through normal support channels. Online sites like student minds, student forums and online ‘listening sessions’ can provide a valuable, easy to access, informal means of maintaining communication with students who are not engaging fully.

The University of the Highlands and Islands takes a proactive approach to managing mental health, stress and anxiety providing student with a ‘toolkit’ and advice on self-help.  Through TheMix charity they encourage students to take the first steps towards seeking support from the appropriate expert external agencies.

Enhancing existing support

The University of the West of England have collaborated on the SAM app which helps students manage anxious thoughts. We could build on the popularity of mindfulness courses and apps with more formal research into their effectiveness in order to refine their use. Just by encouraging students to self-monitor their wellbeing and their academic progress in tandem, we acknowledge the connection and the need to prioritise both.

‘Knowing’ a student is central to identifying the changes in their behaviour patterns that might invite further investigation by a personal tutor – with larger cohorts to manage, often remotely, Technology could help present and analyse the patterns.

Could we identify students at risk in order to trigger and improve interventions via the existing support channels? The significant ethical and practical concerns about using student data to support their well being were debated at Jisc Digifest 2018. What is clear is the potential to enhance existing support and personalise the response we make more effectively.

Enabling self-support

Good mental health affects individual productivity and this contributes positively to community and economy. Students have expectations about the mental health support available at university. They may even make university selections based on the student feedback.

The University of Kingston is rated highly by What Uni for its Wellbeing services. Personal contact is augmented with online support from SilverCloud to help students develop resilience and manage their own wellbeing. Students develop self-awareness and learn new coping techniques to challenge negative thoughts and work towards goals for positive change.

Redesigning delivery

Technology increasingly enables us to inform learning design with student data. For example, gathering class cohort information on the use of VLE, assignment submissions and contributions to discussion forums could be used to inform improved curriculum and course design. We can see where and when students struggle to meet deadlines and workout if there is there a way to rework the delivery to alleviate the pressure.

Making full use of digital options in course design will allow students to customise the way they learn. Providing a variety of activities, flexible assessment options and timely online feedback could maximise a students strengths at a time when they need extra support and motivation.

Build in online engagement

The symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress can impact greatly on a students ability to engage with learning and engage with people.  Inclusive use of technology will maximise flexibility and responsiveness in the way we teach. Encouraging online collaboration ( using Google docs, class tools or linking into social media) will allow a student to contribute remotely and informally rather than face to face, at times when they feel able to participate. Just maintaining contact could help avoid missed deadlines that might lead to a deterioration in their condition.

Productivity tools, apps, even browser plugins, can lessen the pressure of study by helping students to manage and prioritise their time and work. They can make reading and writing less challenging, with text to speech, voice recognition or by providing referencing and grammar support. Screen capture and recording apps can make it easier to capture learning activities and to review or remember key learning ‘takeaways’ from a teaching session.

Make access easier

Structure course pages on the VLE in a way that will make information easier to find and follow. Use accessible multimedia and other tools that can help minimise cognitive overload rather than dense text documents that may be off-putting to read. Provide prioritised digital reading lists linked directly to course pages and assignments to allow for ‘bite-sized’ on and off engagement.  Ensure course materials and assignment documents have navigable, meaningful headings that provide an overview, are written in ‘plain’ English, and give clear instructions on what is required and when.

Mental health, well-being and success are all linked to opening up the diversity of delivery using technology. Many approaches that we recommend for specific disabilities can make life easier for others facing any additional challenge including stress or depression. The key is to make use of the flexibility that technology offers to ensure you can be as responsive to an individuals needs as possible.

Read more related blogs on Accessible Organisations

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