Digital Mental Health Platforms Can Improve Student Well-Being

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Nathaan Demers, a clinical psychiatrist, former college counselor and a vice president at Grit Digital Health, helped develop the YOU at College platform in partnership with Colorado State University. For Demers and others, creating an application students and faculty felt comfortable, safe and secure using was crucial. To get around the stigma associated with using a mental health app or mental health services, they focused on the term “well-being” instead. They built a tool that would provide campus and in-app resources while also sending those in need of counseling or other mental health services upstream toward those options.

“Not every student needs counselling,” says Demers. “If a student is struggling with, let’s say, basic needs, let’s make sure that student can get those needs met. Let’s really help get students through the right doors on campus.”

Protecting User Data Through Aggregation and Anonymity

Because of the negative stigma still attached to mental illness and the use of mental health services, and because of the sensitive nature of the information people may be sharing, providing an app that was 100 percent trustworthy and anonymous was an imperative for the developers at YOU and for the more than 200 colleges and universities that now use the service.

“We knew that if students had any inclination that their educators, their faculty members, their RAs or the folks at the universities who work with them would have access to data indicating whether they’re having a substance abuse problem or some other type of sensitive information, that it would be a huge barrier to using the tool,” says Andrew Baker, vice president of product at Grit Digital. “Student privacy and confidentiality has always been a core, foundational principle, both in the design as well as in the technical software engineering.”

To accomplish that, YOU is typically tied to a university’s single sign-on solutionallowing the platform to authenticate with a firewall that’s already in place to guarantee user privacy.

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Among many other places, the platform has been adopted and vetted by the California State University system, where IT leaders undertook a four-step review of the tool that included a review of YOU’s accessibility, vendors, data security policy and technical launch procedures, according to Candice Chick, who helps manage the platform along with student wellness and mental health at California State University, Long Beach.

Chick adds that the university uses Microsoft Azure as its single sign-on solution as part of a “very tight ship” that Cal State Long Beach runs regarding student data privacy.

In addition to in-depth vetting and single sign-on integration, Baker says YOU’s data storage tool immediately decouples personally identifiable information from data on user behavior. That second set of data, in turn, does get aggregated and shared with the partner universities to help them learn about their students’ interests and needs.

“The university partners that we work with, they really want this rich data about what students are browsing and when they’re browsing, but we deliver that in an anonymized and aggregated way,” says Baker.

Meanwhile, to create a sense of confidence for users, Baker says most colleges and universities are also creating spaces on their domains to house the platform. (At Colorado State, it can be found at you.colostate.edufor example).

READ MORE: Using technology to improve mental well-being for college students.

Getting Students What They Need, Where They Want It

Chick says that once students are comfortable with the platform, they can use the YOU app to find on-campus jobs, connect with their advisers, track their sleep, watch TED Talks and more.

All of that mobile interaction can help students relax then and there — there are breathing exercises on the platform too — or steer them to the next stop in their journey to better mental health and fitness.

“YOU is advertised on our campus as a one-stop shop where you can explore the opportunity for help,” says Chick. “We want students to know we’re here for them and that there are tools to support them. And if they don’t necessarily want to reach out and meet with someone or be on campus, then they can do it in a virtual way.”

For those who are in acute mental health crisis, the platform does offer links to 24-hour local and national resources like the national suicide prevention lifeline, and the YOU interface includes a button for users to hit if they feel they are in crisis.

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