Time for A Bigger Role For Digital Technology Amidst The Student Mental Health Crisis

As we move into December, students up and down the UK are preparing to return home for Christmas. Packing up their books, piling up their laundry, and rehearsing watered-down, “parent-friendly” anecdotes of nights out on the town.

However, for many students, they perhaps carry home an issue more complex than any textbook, harder to explain than any night out… In fact, according to a YouGov survey, more than a quarter of these students returning home this Christmas (27%) will have reported having a mental health problem of one type or another. A shocking statistic; a statistic I also fear, doesn’t portray the full extent of the mental health problem amongst students, as many won’t report it.

Never has it been more pressing for healthcare delivery to be as responsive and forward-thinking as possible. It is my belief; digital technology has a crucial supporting role to play, alongside more traditional mental health services, in meeting unprecedented levels of demand. Despite the brilliant work they do, university mental health services are at breaking point. It’s easy to see why when YouGov has, in fact, stated; nearly one in five (18%) of students have made use of university mental health services. We have to make sure we are doing all we can; not one single person should fall through the net.

Thankfully, the levels of stigma attached to mental health are reducing among students. The NHS has contributed to this admirably via online digital campaigns that have reached out to young people, via Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. However, still, not everyone understandably feels they can make that leap of faith in coming in for a consultation. This is where digital technology within healthcare delivery can help tighten the net.

Anxiety and depression can be debilitating. The very idea of getting out of bed, travelling to a clinic, and sitting in the waiting room, perhaps hoping nobody they know walks in, is an ordeal too great for many. With online video consultations, that first leap of faith is made easier. We have the technology to now connect a patient with a reassuring, experienced healthcare professional in minutes, not days; it has never been more accessible. The more accessible our response to the mental health crisis amongst young people is, the more students we can identify, refer, and treat. The fact that, on average, internet users aged 16 and over, spend more than 20 hours online each week, again points to how digital healthcare technology can reach students perhaps in a way more traditional services cannot.

University can provide students with some of the best years of their lives. However, it can also be a time of profound stress that manifests in social, academic, and increasingly, economic pressures. As healthcare providers, we have to provide that safety net if those pressures take their toll. Digital technology has worked wonders in raising awareness around the problem. I believe it can also help solve it. Not exclusively, but as part of a rigorous blended care approach; traditional face-to-face treatment, combined with online technologies responding in real time to a very real problem.

Dr Mobasher Butt is a partner at GP at Hand, Medical Director at Babylon, and a former adviser to the chief medical officer for England.