student health, stigma, anxiety, depression, digital health, mental health, mental health stigma, myStrength

How innovative technology can help college students with their mental health

May 09 2017

Nearly every student encounters unexpected challenges during college. Changes, including new environments, relationships, academic workload, decision-making and self-identity, are taxing and lead to varying emotions including sadness, loneliness and worry. When unaddressed, these challenges can develop into more serious mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

Mental health issues are prevalent on college campuses

According to the latest results from the National College Health Assessment:

  • More than 1 in 5 college-age students felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months
  • Nearly 17 percent felt so depressed they couldn’t function
  • Nearly half (48.7 percent) found their academic responsibilities to be “traumatic or very difficult to handle”

Research on mental health on college campuses conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported similar concerns:

  • 72 percent of students experienced a mental health crisis on campus; yet 34 percent reported their college did not know about their crisis
  • 57 percent of students did not access accommodations through college resource centers, often citing they were unaware such services existed or that they had access to them
  • 36 percent of students cited stigma as the number one barrier to accessing their college’s mental health services and supports

Without adequate treatment or support, young adults experiencing a mental health issue are more likely than their peers to receive lower GPAs, drop out of college or be unemployed.

Technology helps tackle college stressors

A recent Pediatrics study found the prevalence of a major depressive episode in people between the ages of 12 and 17 increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014. The study also revealed that depressive episodes among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 increased from 8.8 percent to 9.6 percent during this same time.

“Honestly, it’s unlike any other tool on campus. It’s like having a support network that’s anonymous.” –WVU student

Technology meets students and young adults where they are and provides an opportunity to receive the treatment they need for their mental health.

Aetna’s Student Health team has engaged myStrength, Inc., a digital behavioral healthcare company, to provide behavioral health solutions to college-age students while addressing the challenges of stigma and access.

Working with student advisory panels, Aetna Student Health and myStrength developed personalized, online self-care tools to support college students’ challenges with stress, anxiety, test-taking, relationships, self-esteem, depression, and substance use. The resources incorporate clinical, evidence-based activities to increase resiliency, develop coping strategies and help manage the stressors of college life.  These tools also help students maintain a positive mindset, helping to prevent the onset of loneliness and worry.

How it works

All students and faculty on Aetna’s Student Health Plans have access to myStrength with no referral required. Students who create an account set baseline goals during an initial assessment. They then receive personalized activities including videos, articles, inspirational quotes and mindfulness exercises specifically curated for students. Topics include I’m Freaking Out, Happiness, and College Life.

Students can track their mood, record their thoughts, and choose activities that suit their current challenges or emotional state.

A screenshot of myStrength.

A screenshot of myStrength.

Students can easily view their activity history, making it simple to revisit any resources they find meaningful. Additionally, there is an option to choose to share and/or read responses from others who have completed the same activity. This opt-in feature is anonymous and secure, combining user comments from all participating universities to create a supportive peer-to-peer community without direct interaction. More than two-thirds of students who participated in the program valued the ability to connect with other students through these community discussions. A ‘Get Help’ page also links students who need more personalized support to on-campus resources who can assist in person.

Success with digital tools

The application is available from a computer or any mobile device and can provide help before, during and after issues occur.

Reports indicate students frequently access myStrength in the evening when traditional resources are unavailable. Tools for self-identification of emotional distress and mindfulness are most frequently utilized, including activities like ‘Do I have major depression,’ ‘Self-esteem check-up’ ‘Do I have generalized anxiety disorder’ and ‘Anxious? Breathe with this.’

The tools are also available for Student Health Center staff that use the digital resource to help identify students at elevated risk and accelerate their mastery of healthy coping tools. The goal is to continually promote resilience and offer reinforcement of skills.

myStrength’s content is clinically-proven, confidential, HIPAA-compliant and offers secure access 24 hours a day, seven days a week via the Aetna Student Health portal.

Fully insured student health insurance plans are underwritten by Aetna Life Insurance Company (Aetna). Self‐insured plans are funded by the applicable school, with claims administration services provided by Aetna Life Insurance Company. Aetna Student HealthSM is the brand name for products and services provided by Aetna Life Insurance Company and its applicable affiliated companies (Aetna).