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Push messages key to supporting student wellbeing

Live push messaging programmes can offer tailored, private messaging support, says Daphne Metland, Director of UniHealth

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | January 02, 2018 | Technology

In the last 20 years, the UK student population has skyrocketed. Many of the two million students now studying would describe university as “the best years of their life”. However, many find the newfound independence, making friends, course work, tuition costs, and everything else that comes with being a student, challenging.

In our latest UniHealth report we found that a massive 82% of UK students struggle with stress and anxiety, and almost half (45%) have feelings of depression. It has been described as a “mental health crisis”. We know that institutions are struggling to meet wellbeing support demand and many students are dropping out as a result. 

Earlier this month, speaking at the Westminster Higher Education Forum I attended, the Universities UK lead on Wellbeing, Professor Steve West, suggested students should declare their mental health problems on their application.

Many people cannot identify when feeling stressed or anxious tips over into having a mental health problems

It would be ideal if every student with a mental health problem, were confident enough to ask for help. But, many people cannot identify when feeling stressed or anxious tips over into having a mental health problem. And there’s still an unfortunate stigma attached to making that statement. So, the idea that students would be happy to declare this is questionable

The responsibility should not be passed to the students, instead it should be down to the universities to provide the right support to care of all their students. It should be the norm to support all students’ mental health. Providing support to those already struggling is essential; however, it is just as important to support all students to prevent mental health problems. It should be the norm to support all students’ mental health

It’s unrealistic to think that hiring more counsellors is the solution to the “mental health crisis”. The increasing student population, and institutions’ tighter purse strings makes this unaffordable. Many students don’t want or need face-to-face support. This was highlighted in our research which found three quarters of students admit they don’t ask for help because they’re embarrassed, they don’t know where to find it or they think it’s a waste of time. Students are digital-natives. They need a more accessible digital support system.  Our survey showed that nearly a third (28%) of students said they’d prefer to receive advice from a private message sent directly to their smartphone.

Live push messaging programmes delivered by phone can offer tailored, private messaging support. But why a messaging platform rather than email or an app? Well the black and white proof is:

So a live messaging programme takes the messages to where the students are all day every day. Frequent small messages act as ‘nudges’ towards behaviour change, offering support, information and reminders. They can be a ‘still small voice of calm’ in the busy, buzzy world of starting university – for example Facebook Messenger.

Messages can be ‘push’ or ‘pull. Push messages appear at regular intervals once a user is signed up. So every week students will get messages timed to meet their needs such as coping with freshers’ week, or exam stress. ‘Pull‘ messages allow the user to ask for extra information. A combination of push and pull allows a mainstream of wellness and resilience messaging to be pushed to all students, and extra streams of information on topics such as contraception, sexual assault, eating disorders to be pulled when needed. 

By adopting a digital solution, universities are able to reach multiple students with push messages – not just those who have declared a problem

By adopting a digital solution, universities are able to reach multiple students with push messages – not just those who have declared a problem. And students don’t have to be anxious or depressed to find a wellbeing message useful. Often, it’s something really simple that helps people. In one of our focus groups, a young male student said that just one message saying homesickness is normal would have made a difference to how he coped in the first few weeks. Another student on the pilot programme said she expected the messages to help her academically, but in fact they had helped with all aspects of her life.

Messages can pre-empt problems for many, but if a problem does occur, the messages can signpost to where to go for help. Digital messaging programmes are not just for students who are feeling anxious or depressed. Most students will talk to other students, which can mean that friends often feel responsible and burdened. It’s important that they know how to get help for someone who is struggling.

A message that helps someone solve a problem, or deal with how they are feeling, is empowering. Regular messaging gradually builds up a student’s confidence and skills. They could make all the difference for students silently suffering and unsure where to go for help. 

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