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A shift toward wellbeing to address student mental health

The University of Memphis is using technology to address the mental-health crisis

Like every college and university in the nation, the University of Memphis has struggled with a rapid and ongoing rise of student demand for mental health services. We’re also grappling with the realities of the mental-health crisis in America: According to a recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, U.S. teens and young adults today are more distressed and more likely to suffer from major depression than their counterparts of the same age in previous generations.

The conclusion is that when it comes to issues of mental health in young adults, things are getting worse, not better. The study’s findings indicate we need to reconsider how we approach student mental-health challenges. Ultimately, this means making an imperative shift toward identifying what students need to succeed and learning how we can help them address the issues that contribute to depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem before the development of clinical symptoms.

At the University of Memphis, we recognized that we could never provide one-on-one outreach to every student who is feeling challenged by college. But we also knew we needed to do more, especially for those students who do not or will not use the existing services available. This is what drove our decision to examine how we could reach students in new ways.

How we use technology to better address student mental health

Our initial interest was really in the student mental-health area, but we realized that very often seemingly routine issues such as academic challenges, financial pressures, or homesickness can precipitate more acute problems down the road. These are the areas where guidance and assistance early on and “in the moment” can really help improve student lives—and prevent issues from snowballing into larger mental-health concerns.

Related: 2 actions university leaders can take to impact student wellbeing

What’s more, we realized we needed to connect with students where they spend a large percentage of their time, which today is on the internet. All of these considerations guided us toward an online solution that could provide self-directed help, available confidentially by students on their own time in their own way.

We discovered there are a variety of ways to approach wellbeing online. But it’s critical that any solution provides immediate “on demand” (and private) access to resources and services so students can feel comfortable exploring any problem they’re experiencing. Issues like test anxiety, how to make new friends, or feelings of depression may not be topics every student is comfortable discussing with educators, classmates, or even friends and family. Some of these are topics students may not even recognize as problems. A well-researched and comprehensive online platform must anticipate needs and identify assistance that students may not even know they need.

Ultimately, our search led us to consider YOU at College, which we first learned about at the 2018 NASPA National Conference in Philadelphia. We were impressed with the platform’s initial results. Surveys of students using the YOU portal show that 98 percent of first-year users learned a new skill or resource to support their wellbeing. In addition, 76 percent of students reported improved stress management and 87 percent reported learning of campus resources they had previously not used.

Reaching students where they are

With YOU at College, students create a personalized profile and complete several assessment tools to get started, then they gain access to tips, content, and resources customized for their exact needs. Everything is 100-percent confidential.

We launched YOU@Memphis in November 2018 and the reaction has been extremely positive. We conducted some early outreach to build enthusiasm, focusing on gaining the acceptance of the Student Government Association and tailoring emails for students, faculty, and staff to tout the site when it was introduced. We’ll be pushing adoption of the portal this semester via posters, table tents, and brochures distributed throughout campus.

Related: What is your college doing to help students handle stress?

Our early feedback has been very exciting. The quality and reach of the YOU content make the portal so engaging for students. With a combination of well-researched existing resources from leading behavioral professionals, custom-created content developed by the YOU at College team of experts, and localized information provided by the University of Memphis, the YOU@Memphis experience looks and feels very customized and relevant for our unique campus. Some of our early student feedback pointed to resources that were missing or could be improved, and the YOU team was very helpful in working with us to make improvements to better meet the needs of our students.

Although early adoption has been slowly building, we think acceptance of the portal will accelerate and it will become a strong component of our campus culture. We’ll be incorporating information about YOU@Memphis into our new student orientations for more than 2,500 incoming students, and we’re confident it will become a “must have” resource for students, particularly as we use student feedback to continue to refine the relevance of content and how it’s delivered.

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