Today’s students are experiencing a new set of pressures, with a rising number of students experiencing mental health difficulties. Demand for counselling services at universities and colleges has grown exponentially - for some as much as 1000% in eight years.
Why this matters
It is difficult for both education providers and health services to respond to the rising number of students needing support. Across the population as a whole, there is a rising incidence of clinically diagnosed mental health conditions among young adults; a trend that has been flagged as a global challenge by the World Health Organisation. In turn, this is detracting from student wellbeing and impacting negatively on learning outcomes.
The relationship between technology and mental health is complex. It is now widely recognised that digital technologies like social media can have adverse effects on mental health and can exacerbate existing mental health conditions. But at the same time, a range of technology-driven approaches, including the collection and analysis of digital data, show promise in getting timely and focussed support to students.
What we are doing
This project focusses on how technology and data informed approaches can contribute to the promotion of positive mental health in further and higher education institutions.
Our work is about understanding where technology can be deployed to reduce the burden on frontline staff in colleges and universities. We work with students, teachers and professional services staff to develop solutions that can improve wellbeing and address mental health issues.
We are looking at a range of technology-based options to help students and staff, including:
- Improving the use of administrative and academic data
- Enhanced data and analytics to enable the easier identification of student's support needs
- Using national level data to support planning of services
- Innovative online tools and apps
- Examining the role of artificial intelligence approaches, such as chatbots and immersive technologies
Rather than looking for substitutes for human interactions, we are exploring processes and workflows that support trained professionals; enabling students to move easily from using an app or getting support online, to speaking to an appropriately qualified member of staff. Here, technology can assist medical professionals and teachers to work closely together in the best interests of students.
How can data and analytics help?
Jisc’s expertise in learning analytics has taught us that data, when deployed appropriately, can transform outcomes for students. Learning analytics has had a positive impact on retention and attainment and has allowed universities to identify students in need of further support. From this, it makes sense to explore how data-informed approaches can play a role in identifying and supporting students who may be experiencing mental health and wellbeing issues.
Any approach to improving student mental health and wellbeing that is informed by data collected by universities about their students must operate within the appropriate legal and ethical frameworks. We have developed a draft code of practice to guide institutions in the design, implementation and use of analytics that address student wellbeing and mental health issues.
Background to the project
In 2018, Jisc set out a first framework for how a “whole university approach”, bringing together a range of data in university and college systems, could help build a better understanding of students’ needs through the appropriate use of “wellbeing analytics”. Since then we have discussed with a number of universities the ways in which they could collect, organise, and use data to evolve and scale their student mental health and wellbeing services.
Tragically, a high percentage of students who self-harm, including those who take their own lives, are not previously known to university and college support services. Following from this, we are asking our partners in further and higher education whether it would be useful to aggregate data, that may provide evidence of acute crisis, in a dashboard or other online tool for the review of mental health professionals so that earlier interventions can be made. In taking forward these discussions we have drawn on the vision and impetus of James Murray and the leadership he has shown since the tragic death of his son Ben in 2018.
What are the next steps?
As a new area of work, the evidence base that could confirm which data, tools and systems could help is still incomplete. At the same time, there are many services, apps and other tools being developed and marketed to students and education organisations as a solution to mental health problems - the efficacy of many still untested.
Given this, Jisc’s success in developing an appropriate and effective contribution to addressing the ever-increasing challenges of ensuring positive mental health will depend on partnership working and involvement across the sector.
We need to engage with mental health professionals, student support and wellbeing services, researchers and students. We need to make the most of promising areas of innovation as well as gathering the evidence base that will be needed for the future health of our students.