Over the past few months I feel like I’ve been an amateur detective. Every day I read news about the mental health “crisis” affecting students and young people, and how already pressed specialist services are struggling to cope.
As a parent of teenagers who will be ready for higher education in a couple of years, I had two main questions that I needed to answer: why is this happening and what can I do to help?
Talking to others, it’s clear that something has changed since I was a teenager in the 1980s. Many of the young people I know are struggling with depression and anxiety in some form and are asking for more support. At least, that’s my experience as a parent, but it is likely to be the experience of school counselling staff and GPs too.
Then there are the conversations I find myself having with people I’ve never met before – with parents having to text their child reassurance hourly to keep anxiety under control and panic attacks at bay, and about the growing set of disorders affecting young men that seem to be more prevalent, such as eating disorders.
So what is going on?
My first question was whether mental health conditions are more prevalent or whether they are just being talked about more. Are people more likely now to medicalise and label “problems” that are actually a normal, if painful, part of growing up?
In the past, parents would simply have taught their children what we would now call resilience. When sad or worried, we would have reassured children that such feelings were quite normal and advised them to wait patiently until things got better.
While there is still something in this advice – which is exactly what I would have my told younger self if I had a time machine – for young people now, this stuff really won’t wash.
My real lightbulb moment came when I heard Dominique Thompson speak at Jisc's Digifest this year. As a former university GP who has seen thousands of cases at the University of Bristol, she had illuminating insights about what could be behind the struggles facing today’s students.
For her, it’s the heady cocktail of the ‘you can do and be anything’ culture, the expectation of instant answers from Google or Alexa, increased loneliness and a lack of opportunity to develop actual rather than virtual social skills, in the 24/7 always connected society where you co-exist with glimpses of others’ carefully curated, seemingly perfect lives. And all of this is happening at a time when young people might be away from home and living independently for the first time.
Times have changed and we are all struggling to respond.
What can we do to help?
Technologies such as social media might be part of the problem, but other technologies such as data analytics could be part of the solution. The next part of my detective work was meeting James Murray. James is the father of Ben Murray, a student who tragically took his own life at university in 2018.
I wanted to meet James because my team at Jisc had already started talking to him about prototyping and testing a version of a data analytics dashboard concept he envisioned could create ‘suicide safer’ universities. I wanted to understand practically what Jisc could do next, but there was another, more personal reason. I am also a member of the club that no-one wants to join, that is for people who have lost someone in their immediate family to suicide and been profoundly changed by that experience. As others who have been bereaved by suicide will know only too well, the waves may die down but the ripples are infinite.
My reaction to that loss was probably not unusual in that grim days and weeks were spent analysing the past in the search for the signs that had been missed. James has insisted that there were some warning signs that Ben was in distress, many of which existed or could have existed as data. If there had been a way for support staff at the university to see those indicators in one place, then perhaps action could have been taken sooner and maybe Ben’s life could have been saved.
This idea was very relevant to Jisc’s work because we have already been looking at how students and staff can benefit through better data and analytics about students’ academic performance and engagement with their course. This is the cornerstone of our approach to learning analytics, which we launched as a service in autumn 2018.
We had also already made the link that the sorts of insights it is possible to gain through learning analytics – such as when someone is struggling with their course or starting to disengage – might also highlight students who are having other difficulties including with mental health. And we agree with James Murray and others, notably Universities UK, who argue for a more holistic and systematic approach to using systems and data to support students and see that there are potentially big gains to be made by deploying a whole university approach.
Soon after I met James, I found out that I was not alone in my detective work. Talking to three universities about the concept of an early alert system for students in crisis revealed that much time and effort can be spent piecing together what is happening to a student based on data that is currently locked into different systems and in the heads of staff in different departments.
We shouldn’t blame universities for this. Over the past 20 to 30 years, IT and data-based systems have proliferated, not just in universities but across all organisations, public and private, which rely on many systems to perform different functions.
Most staff we spoke to realise that they could support students better and more quickly if they could make better use of the data that students have already agreed to share. Analytics can be used to spot patterns and staff also see the potential for a better, single system, integrated with institutional workflow and linked to a customer relations manager-type functionality to ensure communications are streamlined and consistent.
So what does this all mean? Will a better grip on data at universities mean we can save lives? It’s what James Murray believes can happen and the case he makes is compelling.
Of course, every student and every situation is different and any solutions that Jisc or other providers put in place will only succeed if they work for the whole university and their staff and students, recognising their particular challenges, systems and workflows.
Right now, the most helpful thing we can do as the higher education sector, and as a larger community of parents, teachers, counsellors, doctors and students, is to talk about data and what it can do, being clear about what we should do and what the ethical and legal limits are.
There are some tricky issues – university students are adults and we need to respect their privacy and make sure we support them with sensitivity and care. However, that does not mean we should not talk about the value of data-informed approaches. We owe it to our students and young people to see what we can do to take the detective work out of mental health and wellbeing.
This blog originally appeared on HEPI's website to mark World Mental Health Day.
Read more about our new project to develop mental health and wellbeing technologies and analytics.
Anyone in the sector who has ideas about how technology could be harnessed to improve mental health and wellbeing support for students can join a dedicated mailing list by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.