How emerging technology can help address students’ mental health issues

Students are often exposed to high levels of stress, which can have a highly detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Thankfully, emerging technology can offer a potential solution to this problem.

  • How secondary school students deal with stress
  • Mental health crisis in higher education
  • Main causes of mental health issues among students
  • Growing awareness of the importance of mental health
  • How technology can help students improve their mental health

School can be a very stressful period in any person’s life. During this period, students are under extreme pressure to perform well and thus give themselves a better chance of success in the future. However, not all students react to this pressure in the same way. While some will inevitably thrive under pressure, many of them will succumb to it and start to experience a wide range of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. Some schools have tried to address this issue by launching various wellness programmes, which failed to produce the expected results. Thankfully, emerging technology may offer a solution to this problem.

How secondary school students deal with stress

Headspace recently conducted a survey of 1035 young people, one-third of which reported experiencing ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of stress. This had a profound impact on many aspects of their lives, making them feel tired, anxious, and overwhelmed. Some even completely lost their ability to function. Of all the age groups included in the survey, secondary school students (15 to 17-year-olds) turned out to be affected the most by this issue, with 38 per cent describing their rates of psychological distress as high or very high. For girls in this age group, the rates were even higher, with nearly half (46 per cent) reporting experiencing high levels of stress.

When it comes to the main causes of stress among students, academic and exam anxiety top the list, according to ReachOut, an internet service for young people that provides information, support and resources about mental health issues. Thankfully, students are largely aware of the importance of mental health, with 31 per cent saying that they consider it to be one of the most important factors in today’s society, reveals a recent ReachOut survey. What is troubling, though, is that 43 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds say that they are worried about their ability to deal with stress. 

Dissatisfaction with studies is a key factor in the growing rates of stress and anxiety among students, with more than a third of them saying they were not entirely happy with their education, according to the Mission Australia Survey, which included 25,800 participants. Furthermore, 67.5 per cent of students who took part in the survey said that it was ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ for them to be satisfied with their studies. A similar percentage (65.9 per cent) of respondents assigned the same level of importance to their mental health, suggesting that students may be torn between getting good grades and maintaining good mental health. While this particular survey only includes students from Australia, it’s highly likely that similar issues apply to students in other countries as well. That is why it’s important that teachers dedicate more time to teaching their students how to balance their priorities and thus reduce the impact of stress on their everyday lives.

Mental health crisis in higher education

Of course, secondary school students are not the only ones experiencing mental health issues. According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, which involved more than 67,000 higher education students from more than 100 institutions across the US, as many as 20 per cent of participants say that they have had suicidal thoughts. What’s even more troubling is that nearly 20 per cent of the students who reported having suicidal thoughts, also reported self-injury, while 9 per cent went on to attempt suicide. Unable to deal with the pressure, many students will drop out of university. A recent survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reveals that mental health struggles are the number one reason for students leaving university, as indicated by 64 per cent of respondents. To make matters worse, 45 per cent of those students never reported their problems to anyone. This suggests that students may not feel comfortable enough in their surroundings to seek help, possibly due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

The pandemic, which has gripped the world over the past couple of years, has only served to exacerbate these issues even further. According to a survey conducted by Ohio State University, there was a dramatic increase in the number of students who experienced burnout since the start of the pandemic, rising from 40 per cent in August 2020 to 71 per cent in April 2021. The American Psychological Association defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others”. Additionally, the number of students affected by anxiety grew from 39 to 43 per cent, while the number of those suffering from depression grew from 24 to 28 per cent. In an attempt to deal with their issues, many students turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking, smoking, and eating unhealthy food. On the other hand, the number of those who used increased physical activity and other healthy ways to deal with their stress decreased from 35 to 28 per cent.

“The survey really brought students’ continued mental health struggles to light, and it is crucial that we arm students with the resilience, cognitive-behavioural skills and coping skills that we know are protective against mental health disorders”, says Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State. The problem was particularly pronounced among students of colour and LGBTQ+ students, who were more susceptible to mental health issues and less likely to seek help. In addition to lacking a sense of belonging and having difficulties forming strong social bonds with other segments of the student population, these students were also reluctant to ask for help due to a perceived lack of diversity among the counselling staff, who also often lack the relevant cultural knowledge and expertise regarding the matters of gender and sexuality. 

Despite the reluctance among certain groups, students overall seem to be more aware of the importance of good mental health and are becoming more willing to seek help, with 72 per cent saying they would turn to their friends, family, or medical professionals for emotional support, reveals a recent TimelyMD survey. This trend is further supported by the findings from a recent survey of directors of college counselling centres, 90 per cent of whom reported an increase in the demand for their services. Mental health issues didn’t affect students in all countries equally, though. According to a survey conducted by Chegg, Brazil had the highest proportion of students whose mental health had worsened as a result of the pandemic with 76 per cent. The US was next on the list with 75 per cent, followed by Canada with 73 per cent, and the UK with 70 per cent. On the other hand, countries like Italy, Russia, China, and South Korea reported a decrease in the number of mental health issues among students.

Main causes of mental health issues among students

There are many factors that can cause students to experience mental health issues like stress, anxiety, depression, or burnout. Work overload is typically considered the main cause of burnout among students. As deadlines to complete academic work start to approach, students will often neglect sleeping or exercising in order to meet the deadline, which can make them feel irritable or anxious. “When work is done right, it should be enjoyable and feel meaningful and rewarding. That’s not so easy when you’re a student”, explains Professor Craig Jackson, an occupational health psychologist at Birmingham City University. Looking to finish their assignments on time, students may eventually start to neglect other areas of their lives as well, which will contribute even further to burnout. “This means sacrificing exercise, family time, health care, and personal care”, adds Professor Jackson. “Unless this balance changes, we’re always going to see students burn out because it is just too much for them”.

Bullying is another common cause of mental health issues among students. A recent report published by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that about 22 per cent of students aged 12-18 reported being bullied at school in 2019. Bullying can take many forms, including among other things being called names, insulted, purposely excluded from activities, pushed, shoved, tripped, or threatened with harm. Besides school, bullying can also take place online. According to a recent report published by L1ght, an organisation that tracks online harassment, the number of cyberbullying incidents increased by 70 per cent since the start of the pandemic. Another report, published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals that more than 15 per cent of secondary school students claim that they have been the victim of online bullying over the last twelve months.

However, partly due to the stigma attached to it and partly due to fears of retaliation or feeling vulnerable, many students will keep this from their parents and teachers. “Many of these kids are also now in constant contact via social media, and that can put a huge strain on their mental health”, explains Lisa Casavecchia, a clinical social worker at Neponset Valley Pediatrics. “With social media, some kids have a harder time recognising bullying, and when they do, they are more prone to keep this a secret from adults than if it had occurred in school”. Bullying can have a devastating impact not just on a person’s mental health but also on their overall wellbeing. A person that is subjected to bullying can experience feelings of rejection, isolation, exclusion, low self-esteem, or anxiety. More extreme cases of bullying may even cause the bullied person to develop depression, acute stress disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Other notable impacts of bullying include substance abuse, sexual violence, and poor social functioning, some of which could have a long-lasting impact on a person’s quality of life. If a person has been bullied at a young age, they could have serious difficulties trusting others later in life and developing meaningful relationships with them.

The sudden shift to online learning has also contributed to students’ mental health issues by making them feel isolated due to a lack of social contact. The pandemic has also brought on new finance-related stresses, with many students losing their part-time jobs in the retail, leisure, and hospitality industries, which they relied on to pay for their accommodations, books, or tuitions. Another major consequence of recent events is that the labour market is expected to become even more competitive in the coming period, which will make it even more difficult for future graduates to find jobs and increase pressure on them to perform well in school. According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov, as many as 70 per cent of 18-24 years olds in the UK are concerned about their ability to get a job and earn money.

Growing awareness of the importance of mental health

Thankfully, it appears that relevant authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of good mental health and are taking steps to ensure that students’ social, emotional, behavioural, and mental health needs are met. For instance, the Biden administration recently released new guidance for schools that aims to make mental health an integral part of every student’s school experience. In addition to recommendations for prioritising wellness for students and staff, the seven-point plan also includes recommendations for incorporating mental health education and care at all levels of education and working to reduce the stigma surrounding this issue. “We cannot look at [mental wellbeing] as an additional thing to do if there’s time. We really need to make sure it’s the foundation on which we’re building academic support and academic recovery. We have to address where the students are emotionally before we can access a wider bandwidth for academic learning”, says Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

In an attempt to prioritise mental health and provide students with the support they need, a number of US states have passed bills that allow students to miss school for mental health reasons. The move was largely met with approval from students, 78 per cent of which believe schools should introduce mental health days, according to a recent survey. “Giving students more tools and opportunities to de-stress by allowing them to take ownership of their mental health and take breaks when they need can be helpful for learning”, says Matt Shenker, MEd, a former elementary school counsellor and a resident in counselling at Thriveworks. “A chronically stressed brain is not in learning mode, it is in survival mode. So there is an argument to be made that giving students mental health days makes teaching and learning more effective as students will grasp concepts sooner and retain them more deeply if they experience less chronic stress”.

How technology can help students improve their mental health

Emerging technologies can play an important part in helping students address their mental health issues. Ajivar is a new mental health app designed specifically to teach students about emotional intelligence and help them become more self-aware. The app is basically a personalised private coach that uses artificial intelligence to provide students with relaxation tips, as well as meditation, breathing techniques, and positive affirmations. “There’s so much research that talks about how mindfulness is really great in calming the nervous system and responding to stress more sufficiently and easy”, says Trine Schmidt, a licensed Mental Health Counselor and co-founder of the app. One of the app’s most notable features is the Real You Community section, which provides students with a safe, private space where they connect with others anonymously and provide support to one another. Another interesting app designed to help students reduce their stress levels is Virtual Hope Box. Developed by the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the app allows students to store images and videos that remind them of positive things in life, play games, or perform breathing relaxation, or meditation exercises. Similarly, the Three Good Things app encourages students to focus on positive thoughts by asking them to describe three positive experiences they’ve had that day. The recent switch to online learning has made it more difficult for teachers to identify students who are struggling with their mental health and provide them with the support they need. To address this issue and keep their students safe online, a growing number of schools are implementing web filtering software like Linewize. In addition to blocking access to inappropriate websites, the software can also monitor what students are searching for online or what kind of videos they are watching. If it detects anything that may indicate harmful behaviour or violence, it will immediately notify the relevant staff, enabling them to react in a timely manner.

Although school is meant to be a safe place, where students can acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, productive adults, the reality is often different. For many students, school is a major source of stress and can cause them to develop a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and burnout. Thankfully, as the awareness of the importance of mental health continues to grow, a growing number of schools are taking active steps to help their students address their mental health challenges. Emerging technologies will play an important role in these efforts. From various mobile apps to web filtering software, technology can help students identify early warning signs and get help before they develop into something more serious.