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Digital Support for Student Mental Health

Saturday 10 October 2015 Student Mental Health

This World Mental Health Day, it’s important to highlight the opportunities available to seek help, even those in the digital world.

Meeting new people, living on a budget, homesickness, keeping up with deadlines - student life can have its challenges.

With social, financial and academic pressures on young people growing all the time, it’s easy to see why mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, are affecting so many. A 2013 NUS survey found that one in five considered themselves to have a mental health problem, with many also reporting wellbeing issues, such as trouble sleeping, or a lack of motivation.

Many find it hard to admit that they are struggling, perhaps because they are scared of being thought of as ’weak’ or being told to ‘pull themselves together’. These ideas are unhelpful and untrue, but stigmas can make students reluctant to seek help for their mental health. For those who may be experiencing an issue for the first time, it can be hard to know where to turn for help.

In fact, most universities have a range of support available for mental health and wellbeing issues, from tutors to student welfare teams, student counselling services and, vitally, GPs. Demand for these services are increasing all the time. A recent report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England cited ‘an overwhelming consensus [from universities] that demand for mental health provision was rising.’

Given this growing need for support amongst students, many are turning online to seek help.  Most students are comfortable with the online world. If you can bank, shop, chat and study online with ease, it’s hardly a leap to expect support for health at the same time. Digital services are easy and discreet to access, benefitting from the ‘online disinhibition effect’, which means that someone who might never share a mental health issue in ‘real’ life might feel more comfortable sharing anonymously online.

Some online support options have even been endorsed by the NHS, which recently launched a library of approved digital services. One service from this library which works widely with students is Big White Wall. Currently available at 10 UK universities, Big White Wall offers 24/7 online mental health support. The service has seen a big increase in demand from students.  Over five times as many accessed it at the start of 2015, compared to 2014.

Big White Wall offers an anonymous support community, information and courses on topics such as managing anxiety, problem solving and positive thinking. It also has counsellors online 24/7 to keep users safe and provide additional support. The biggest factor that helps people share is the fact that the service is anonymous. Unlike some social networking sites, safety and security are paramount.

Connecting online with others can help students to open up about issues they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable sharing. Almost half of students surveyed by Big White Wall said they used it to talk about something they had never discussed before, with anxiety and depression being the most commonly discussed topics overall on the service.  Other online services include Mind's Elefriends and Silent Secret - an app for young people aged 11-19.

In the future, it looks like many more universities will look to expand their student support to include an online option.  This won’t ever replace face-to-face services, but it could offer students something that works 24/7, even when away from university. For some, it might be the only way they feel comfortable enough to get support. As one student commented: ‘Being able to talk online to other people was really, really useful. Otherwise, I would have kept it all bottled up. 

Big White Wall is available at ten UK universities and in some areas it is also available via the NHS – see if it is free in your area or at your university here. Students at our partner universities can enter their university email address at www.bigwhitewall.com, or if you live in an area where Big White Wall is available via the NHS, you can sign up for free using your postcode.

For more information about mental health support at your university, speak to your university counselling or student health service.