The jury is still out on if social media is harming or hurting teenagers, though its critics seem to be the most vocal (as in this BBC round-up of all the dangers from February).
What we can be sure of - young people do use it, extensively. What we can also be sure of - sadly - is that when they get to University, they can often really struggle with their emotions, facing as they do their first extended periods of time outside their familiar surroundings. So serious can this get that a lecture series on ‘Happiness’ has become the most popular course in Yale University history.
What we can also be sure of - UK mental health services are under serious pressure, and kids are suffering as a result, at both school and Higher Education. As a result, some institutions are turning to technology to help bridge the gap, with one such being Cardiff Metropolitan University, which is using a digital mental health service service for this very purpose:
Like almost all Higher Education bodies, we have seen a significant increase in demand for counselling and mental health support in recent years; depending on how you look at the data, demand has as much as doubled over 10 years, even though our student population has remained relatively stable.
To put that in context - Cardiff Met is a big place. It’s a two-campus university with 10,000 full time students studying sport, education, health sciences, management, technology and art and design. Specialising in practice-focussed programmes with a strong vocational element, including an emphasis on embedded work-based learning in the curriculum, a significant proportion of our students come from low participation neighbourhoods, with many of them the first in their family to go into higher education.
So a doubling of needs for support means a lot of young people feeling up against it, plainly. This Cardiff ‘Met’’s Director of Student Services, Kirsty Palmer, who told diginomica government what that meant in practice:
This increase in demand had resulted in growing waiting lists, longer delays for access to counselling support and a growing concern that this could lead to longer-term problems.
Palmer and her team decided to investigate a solution it could offer students that could help - but ideally do a lot more than just firefight, she says:
What we didn’t want to do was simply keep treating the ‘symptoms’ without trying to do something about the causes.
We were therefore looking for something which would support self-help and development and – crucially – would be available outside normal working hours so that it could support our colleagues in Halls of Residence.
We also wanted something which had a robust quality assurance framework with professional support.
Big White Wall
Palmer says the best answer to these challenges she found was something called Big White Wall’, an anonymous online peer support group/community supported and moderated by clinically trained health care professionals with expertise in emotional and mental health.
The company says clients come to it for help on a wide range of well-being and mental health needs - from anxiety, depression, stress, and relationship problems, to addiction recovery, self-harm and eating disorders. Services offered include 24/7 professionally moderated online peer support, self-management resources, creative arts, and writing therapies, 1:1 therapy with qualified counsellors or Cognitive Behaviour Therapist via audio, or secure private video, even text. Its data shows that the average user reads 120 pages of supportive content on its ‘Big White Wall’.
‘Our students have appreciated having a place to go that they can access at any time and find some sort of support’
How does that kind of support fare in a real-life environment like Cardiff?
Most of our students who use the service do so as part of a wider programme of support and care for their mental health and well-being. A counsellor or well-being advisor will encourage them to engage with it, especially at times when they feel isolated or in need of someone to listen outside normal working hours. All students need is their Cardiff Met email address to sign up, and often our team will encourage them to do so during an appointment so that the commitment is firm and immediate.
Great - but is it making a difference? Palmer stresses that the system has only been available for 8 months or so, so she says it is too early to make any year on year comparisons, but that:
We do know anecdotally that our students have appreciated having a place to go that they can access at any time and find some sort of support. The engagement levels have been really pleasing and we hope to see a measurable difference in the coming year.
Bringing in Big White Wall is part of our on-going plans to widen the range of support that we have in place for our students. We are really clear that our role in Student Services is to support our students to manage their mental health and well-being so that they can succeed in their studies. The peer support and self-help on offer from this helps our students to learn practically how to manage themselves, and this is invaluable.
And, of course - many students, including a whole year intake of Freshers, are this very minute packing their iPads and packing their parents’ copy of The Pauper’s Cookbook in preparation for their first days at college later this month. Palmer and her colleagues in Student Services are more than aware of that deadline, she confirms:
We are approaching a new academic year and planning another push on how students can manage their mental health and well-being.
Big White Wall is a huge part of this, and we hope that we will see increased engagement with it. We are also continuing to develop other support and interventions, looking at group work, psychological education and peer support through Student Minds in partnership with our Students’ Union.
Digital and online support will continue to be a crucial part of our ability to reach as many students as possible. University is a great time for students, for the most part, but we want to make sure that we are there for those times when things are a little harder than we would like.