Students are flooding counseling centers. Researchers are working on a futuristic solution.

Phones, wearables could collect data about student wellness

By some estimates, demand for mental health services is growing five times faster than enrollment.

When colleges don't have the budget to hire more counselors, students seeking treatment can wind up on long waiting lists or go untreated altogether.

Individuals in this situation can face further challenges, such as:

  • Alcohol and substance abuse;
  • Stopping-out of college;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Self-injury; and
  • Suicide.

So what's the solution?

There isn't an easy answer, but colleges have begun experimenting with alternative treatment options such as mobile wellness technology.

One example of this technology is the "iSee" system being developed by several collaborators from Michigan State University (MSU), Northwestern University, and Microsoft.

Three researchers working on the program recently wrote a preview of their research for The Conversation.

Students using iSee will carry a smartphone and wear a smartwatch. The devices gather data on things like ambient light levels and geographic location, which can help the system identify whether students are experiencing common symptoms of depression such as irregular sleep. 

International students benefit from a tailored approach to mental health treatment

The researchers say campus counselors will be able to access the data and use it to better serve the students under their care. For example, smartphone-collected data is likely to be more accurate than self-reported symptoms from students.

Developers also plan for iSee to deliver in-the-moment interventions to student users showing certain signs of depression. For example, it might encourage a sedentary student to head out for a walk, or call a friend.

Colleges are increasingly exploring how smartphones and predictive analytics can help support student mental health needs. For example, in 2014, a Dartmouth College team unveiled a smartphone app that aimed to predict students' mental health and academic performance (Meng, et al., The Conversation, 1/12; Zhang, MSU College of Engineering site, 9/7/16).

Also see: Why texting your students isn't "coddling"


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