Heading off to university or college is a massive step in anyone’s life.
For those of us who completed our stints in higher education many years ago, it’s easy to trivialise the act of plunging into a strange new academic environment. But make no mistake – transitioning from school to higher education is a pivotal moment in a young person’s journey, and education providers have a responsibility to support their students through this experience.
Much has been made in recent years about the mental health crisis that’s engulfed universities in Britain and beyond. Centres of learning need to act in order to protect their students – that is now a strategic priority for administrators everywhere. The question is how best to approach a challenge that is complex, large and fraught with risk?
A huge problem
Embarking on higher education involves a considerable amount of social dislocation and emotional upheaval for students. It’s exciting, yes, but it can also be daunting, perhaps even frightening for those who struggle to adapt to new environments – especially at a time when the wider world is grappling with the mental health impact of a pandemic.
Coupled with the task of forging new friendships, many students must confront the challenge of staying financially solvent whilst committing to years of study. For those enrolled on particularly intensive courses, the physical and mental strain of studying, working and socialising can feel overwhelming.
No wonder then, that 1 in 5 students have a mental health diagnosis, according to a recent survey of nearly 40,000 students. Nearly half of those surveyed say they’re often anxious, and a third are frequently lonely. Clearly, there is a huge problem for universities to address.
The promise of technology
Scale is an interesting way of thinking about the challenge facing universities and colleges. It is simply massive in scale and complexity, due to the number of young people in their care and the unique needs of every student. The scale of the problem they are confronting requires a challenge that is equally scalable. Higher education providers need flexibility, cost-efficiency and the ability to cope with increased demand at times of societal stress, such as COVID-19. Technology offers precisely this.
Our world has become characterised by the influence of technology. We watch movies via the internet, communicate with colleagues on email, and chat with friends over Zoom. Lockdown has accelerated this trend, leading to greater adoption amongst those who were perhaps reluctant to embrace the phenomenal power of video communications to bring friends, families and colleagues closer together.
Until now, the provision of pastoral care in the higher education context has been limited to “old world” techniques such as phone calls, email and face-to-face meetings. These should not be diminished. But many institutions have thousands of students and only a handful of counsellors. They need to make them count.
In recent years there’s been much excitement about the rise of mental health apps, which promise to solve the student mental health crisis. Whilst apps can play a role in monitoring and improving mental health, it’s naive to think that they can address the complex and nuanced needs of young people. Students need real support, from trained counsellors with experience in helping young people to navigate the complexities of higher education.
All about context
Video communications platforms allow universities and colleges to offer the right kind of support to their students, making their mental health provision more scalable, robust and effective. But how does this work in practice?
Confidentiality is paramount. In order to open up and work through their issues, students need to trust that private conversations will remain private. Safeguarding is another key consideration for universities and colleges, who have a duty of care to protect their students from physical and mental harm.
1-2-1 calls provide mental health workers with the ability to listen and respond to students’ thoughts, concerns and anxieties in a confidential, safe and secure context. Using Zoom, Google Hangouts or other domain agnostic video calling platforms for such delicate and unique conversations simply isn’t going to work. What’s needed is a bespoke solution, designed to help students address their concerns with mental health workers in a way that’s safe, secure and genuinely productive.
Nuts and bolts
It’s all about creating the right context for working through mental health issues – making students feel comfortable and secure, so they can open up and make progress. In 2020 there’s no need for students to attend a meeting in-person; calls can be done in their own space, where they feel comfortable and secure. This approach actually increases the likelihood of young people seeking help.
To do this well requires technical versatility and flexibility. In addition to video, 1-2-1 anonymous phone calls should be offered, whereby no phone numbers are exchanged between parties (with the exception of administrators). Calls can also be peer-to-peer, avoiding the need for a central server, so discussions remain confidential and secure.
The right video communications platform should offer real-time safeguarding alerts based on customisable triggers, including keywords and negative sentiment detection on both call sessions and messaging. This kind of functionality can help to flag issues and lead to faster action and resolution. Feedback mechanisms are also critical, with post-call feedback forms offering are a great way to ensure that mental health provision remains effective.
Another feature to consider is direct messaging capability – both pre and post call – enabling care providers to open a channel with students, providing invaluable real-time support. By opening up a communication channel with students, universities can get on the front foot and start proactively managing the mental health crisis that faces them.
Delivering on the strategy
Higher education leaders know that the mental health problem is real, and they’re forging strategies for protecting their students – and their brands – from precipitous risks. A key part of the challenge is putting in place the right mechanisms to monitor progress, measure success and drive improvements. And technology can help.
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