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Colleges Leverage Tech to Improve Mental Health Options

Particularly with stresses induced by the pandemic, new and better tech-flavored ways of providing mental health support and care are being fielded in higher ed institutions.

It's hard to overstate the impact of the past few years on college students' mental health. The social isolation of locked down campuses and stresses of navigating remote learning environments, paired with reduced access to support and care services, have had serious consequences. Indeed, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that 63 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have reported anxiety or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while 25 percent have had suicidal thoughts.

Many colleges and universities have needed to ramp up their support services to meet student needs — and technology is helping to provide solutions. According to a range of experts and practitioners, for example, real, practical, and affordable answers to the mental health crisis are possible through online services and the power of mobile devices. But colleges have had to get creative in developing or selecting apps and services and, above all, in paying for them.

Covering Many Bases

With an ambitious offering of five phone-based apps, University of Kentucky has tackled student mental health challenges and works toward establishing foundational and proactive mental health and well-being initiatives. Those apps include:

  • TogetherAll: Described by the company as a "leading online mental health service that provides millions of people throughout the U.K., U.S., Canada, and New Zealand access to a community and professional support, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
  • Headspace: Headspace is a so-called mindfulness app that has been downloaded millions of times globally.
  • Kognito: A mental health awareness training program to help students, staff, and faculty become aware of signs and symptoms of distress and mental illness.
  • TAO (Therapy Assistance Online): TAO offers dozens of short learning sessions as well as interactive sessions to improve understanding of substance abuses, mental health, and mindfulness.
  • WellTrack: WellTrack provides online tools for learning and feedback about issues the student may be facing and provides cognitive behavior exercises to help students improve their knowledge and well-being.

"We have had very positive responses from student groups — like the Student Government Association — who have been champions of these new platforms and actually have brought ideas to us that we partnered on," said Corrine Williams, acting associate vice president for Student Wellbeing at the university. "We also know these platforms have already reached individual students who might not have accessed support services otherwise," she added.

She credits the university's Information Technology Services (ITS) team for helping to put the pieces together. "The UK ITS unit has been an integral player as we bring these apps online. Without their general support and them helping us understand the best way to do this, there is no way we'd be able to do this work. I've also learned how much better this process is when you engage ITS early in a development process," noted Williams.

Tapping Funds

Paying for projects can be a challenge for most organizations. In May, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued guidance strongly urging colleges and universities to tap American Rescue Plan Act funds, specifically Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF), for these kinds of mental health initiatives. According to his reckoning, some $40 billion has been routed toward higher education. HEERF covers a number of mental health services, including tele-therapy and psychiatry, suicide and crisis prevention training for school staff, hiring additional mental health counselors, 24/7 crisis support, and peer support programs.

In a statement issued by Cardona's office, the Department of Education cited examples of mental health projects funded through this mechanism that are already in play:

  • Telehealth: Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University in Wisconsin – a tribal college – has used the funding to partner with a mental health platform that allows all students and faculty on-demand, 24/7 access to counselors.
  • In-person professionals: Sinclair Community College in Ohio hired a social worker to provide case management to students.
  • Gatekeeper training/suicide prevention training: Davidson-Davie Community College in North Carolina provided gatekeeper trainings and materials to over 30 faculty and staff.
  • Call/text hotline: University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system, runs a student peer phone hotline to allow students to call with mental health concerns or to talk.
  • Suicide prevention coordinating committee: North Carolina Central University – a historically Black university – created a suicide prevention coordinating committee to develop on-campus resources and a suicide response plan.

While HEERF can be a valuable resource for many institutions, in the case of University of Kentucky, Williams said the platforms have been funded by a range of sources including external grants — from organizations like Kentucky's Council on Post-secondary Education — as well as internal funding from the Office for Student Success and the Student Government Association.

It's worth noting, too, that while HEERF provides a temporary funding boost, institutions looking to ramp up student mental health services may be concerned about the long-term costs and risks involved with hiring and expanding staffing, suggested Ed Gaussen, the co-founder and CEO of Mantra Health, a digital mental health services provider. However, he said, colleges and universities can expand their mental health offerings without employing additional full-time clinicians. For example, working with a telehealth provider, schools can offer therapy, psychiatry, 24/7 crisis care, and a diverse group of clinical providers. "Not only do you want gaps in care filled, but you want to meet students' needs properly and quickly to improve mental health conditions," said Gaussen.

"When students are experiencing mental and emotional difficulties, their academic performance and ability to withstand hardship are impacted severely and directly influence student success and retention rates. Colleges and universities must take advantage of this one-time funding to deliver better mental health care to their student body," he added.

Going Solo

The University of Alabama at Birmingham took another approach to the funding dilemma: utilizing in-house IT talent to develop a mobile app for student well-being. The impetus originally came from student leaders who proposed creating an app that could enhance access to existing services and provide connections to additional tools and services. The result is something comparable to the University of Kentucky offering, with access to Kognito and TAO as well as the Student Health Services patient portal, where students can schedule an appointment or contact their counselor.

To put her school's effort in perspective, Rebecca Kennedy, assistant vice president for Student Health and Wellbeing, noted that UAB is part of an international agreement to create "health promoting" universities. So, student mental health is taken seriously. And as the pandemic unfolded, Kennedy said, it became clear that some students were not doing well. In October of 2020, student leaders told the counseling services that an app would be critical to better reaching and serving students.

Kennedy reached out to Curt Carver, the university's vice president for Information Technology and CIO, who quickly got on board with the idea of developing an app. Kennedy and her Counseling Center staff then spent long hours defining what an app would need to do. "We asked Curt if we could have it go live in January and he just said, 'Let me talk to my team,'" she recalled.

Carver, for his part, noted that he had put a lot of effort into building an efficient and responsive IT department. So, for this project, no additional funding was expected. "We commit to delivering a specific number of functions and improvements annually that support what the university is doing," he explained. The app was just another case in point, making it "free" as far as the folks concerned with student well-being were concerned.

Carver said that as soon as the pandemic kicked off, his team had already started working with Google and Apple on public health-related projects. "We were one of their earlier partners on the exposure notification app, and later worked on symptom tracking," Carver explained. His team was already focused on agile methods, so when the need for a mental health app was identified, "we had the capability to rapidly build a protype and then to immediately deploy," he said. In fact, less than a month after Kennedy contacted Carver's team, a prototype was up and running.

Since delivering the completed app in January of 2021, it has even been updated.

While not everyone has the IT resources to create "homegrown" answers to mental health challenges, one thing seems certain: Like many other pandemic changes, the reliance on technology to help students face their mental health challenges is likely here to stay.

"As we gear up fall semester, one of our largest marketing messages to new and returning students will be focused on understanding the range of in-person and virtual health and wellness services available to them," said Williams at the University of Kentucky. "We feel certain that this will continue to deepen the impact of these platforms on our campus."

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