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Improving student mental health with tech

How can we utilize technology to monitor students who are struggling? Toby Margetts – Lead UX Strategy Consultant at Squiz, gives some advice.

Toby Margetts 13 Mar 2024

It’s no exaggeration that there is a mental health crisis in full flight among our young people.

  • The proportion of 11 to 16-year-olds with a common mental disorder has risen from 17% to 23% in six years.
  • Students reporting a mental health challenge has risen from 6% in 2017 to more than 16% in 2023.
  • The rate of students experiencing mental health difficulties rose by 32% in 2023.

The reasons for such a stark decline are complex and nuanced. Higher Education, by definition, is a stress-inducing pursuit.

The stakes are high. Most students are spending a large amount of money over at least three years to attain a qualification. The pressure not to come up short is palpable. Add a cost-of-living crisis, a frightening climate situation, and a global pandemic that are all inescapable thanks to social media and a 24/7 news cycle, and it’s no wonder mental health is crumbling.

Higher Education institutions are losing millions in fees from students dropping out due to mental health reasons.

In the USA, 14% of students said mental health issues were the primary reason they left college. It was also a contributing factor to why nearly a third of students didn’t finish their degrees (1).

The question is, what can be done about it? 

We think technology can help. In particular, the ability to use large amounts of data to spot trends and patterns emerging in student behavior that might indicate a mental health problem. This is the first step.

The second is using that insight and intelligence in innovative and impactful ways to make tangible improvements to students’ mental health.

We’ve got some ideas on how this might work:

1. Create a single view of your students to help spot patterns and trends indicative of mental health issues

It’s possible to know a lot about your online users. Their location. Their gender. The course they’re studying. Previous search terms. Their attendance record. Whether they’ve applied for financial help. The types of pages they’ve previously visited and so on.

By analyzing these sorts of data points, it’s possible to spot patterns and trends. For example, certain data points might be indicative that a student has a mental health issue. Decreasing attendance, visits to mental health-related pages, and searching for anything with the words ‘depression’, 'anxiety’, ‘stress’, or ‘lonely’ would be three obvious red flags.

A Customer Data Platform (CDP) is a tool that lets you capture, store, and make sense of this data so that it’s usable in impactful ways. And crucially, this is first-party data, meaning it’s only collecting data via the Higher Education institution’s own channels.

First-party data is more valuable than the other types of data because it’s based on direct interactions and explicit consent, which aligns with privacy regulations and is considered more accurate.

2. Do something impactful with that data that addresses mental health issues

Let’s imagine you’re using a CDP and you’ve created an ‘at-risk for poor mental health’ segment. When a user meets specific criteria – let’s say their attendance has dropped and they’ve visited two or more mental health-related pages in the last month – they’re placed into that segment.

Now, you can get creative. When that specific user accesses your site, how could you help them?

Perhaps you could display a banner highlighting your university’s brilliant counseling program. Maybe a Chatbot engages with the user asking them if everything is OK. Could you integrate your Marketing Automation tool and have it trigger an email or a WhatsApp to the individual asking if they need any support?

3. Make it personal and test it

Within aDXP, admins can create content components – like carousels or banners. You can often create variations of each component that are shown to different segments.

This means a ‘generic’ user might see one set of components on a page, but when an ‘at-risk for poor mental health’ visits the site, they could see different components that are focussed on getting them help.

You can also A/B test components. So if you’re serving up a banner promoting the university’s counseling services, you could play around with different copy, different call-to-actions, different colors, and any other elements of the component.

You can then see conversion rates to understand which is more effective at achieving the desired outcome – such as clicking on a button or filling out a form.

4. Configure your Search to help at-risk students

When we think of search in Higher Education, we understandably focus on how effectively we can get students to the information they’re looking for. While that is still critically important, what if we could do more?

What if we can use a search interface to serve at-risk students with results that could help them?

We might, for example, consider identifying specific search queries as strong indicators that a student needs help with their mental health. We could configure the search to display a fixed result at the top of all other results in the event that one of those queries is searched. “I need help.” “Exam anxiety”. “I’m lonely.” Any of these should elicit a stronger response from a search engine than simply displaying some vaguely related mental health articles.

Additionally, as Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to develop, search capabilities are constantly improving search result accuracy.

Using AI, the context of a user's query is understood, and relevant synonyms are automatically matched. End users get contextualized – providing precise results every time.

And, in the case of mental health, this could be key.

We’d love to know how your organization is prioritizing student mental health with technology.

Speak to me about how you can implement our digital suggestions –  we’d be delighted to work with you on a strategy that will turn the tide on worsening student mental health.

Reach out to Toby


1. How America Completes College