By Daphne Metland, director of UniHealth
Stress can have a major impact on students’ mood, sense of wellbeing, behaviour and health and, consequently, academic performance.
We know, from recent research, that a massive 8 out of 10 students are suffering from stress and three quarters admit not asking for help because they are they’re embarrassed, don’t know where to find it or they think it’s a waste of time.
First year students are undergoing many changes, not just setting off for uni but also cooking for themselves, managing a budget, adjusting to a new academic workload and wanting to do well on their course. The quicker students find their feet by familiarising themselves with a new city and making friends, the more likely they are to avoid high levels of stress and anxiety and not drop out.
We need to find innovative ways to help students build their emotional resilience and enable them to seek support when things get tough.
Mobile support is the answer
Technology can help.
Students said they were almost 3 times more likely to follow wellbeing advice received on social media messaging then an email. 27% of students in the UK said they would prefer to receive wellbeing support via their smartphone, in the form of private messages, and this was no surprise to us. The generation now attending university are digital natives, looking for support in ways that fit with their digital-oriented life.
Students are digital natives, so they are on their phone all day, every day. The messages go straight to their phone via social media messaging, where unlike email 98% of messages are read within minutes. This method allows much higher engagement, especially if messages can include videos and gif images. Frequent small messages act as ‘nudges’ towards behaviour change, offering support, information and reminders and be a ‘still small voice of calm’ in the busy, buzzy world of starting university.
Messages can be ‘push’ or ‘pull. Push messages appear at regular intervals once a user is signed up. ‘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.
What support and when?
The secret of this sort of behaviour change programme is to work out what information students need, and when they need it. The academic year gives a good basis for this, and there have been some useful studies looking at the emotional phases students go through. Combining this information allows a timely and targeted campaign to be built.
Messages can start before the student leaves for university. Reminders about what they need to do before they go to aid their transition. For example, notifications of any vaccinations they may need, some meal recipes to get them started or instructions on how to use a washing machine, the right paperwork, information about their medical history and so on. These types of messages can help students feel confident and ready.
It’s important for universities to include a mix of different types of messages. Signposting messages help students find their way around at university and remind them about upcoming events like the Freshers Fair, meeting their tutor or library tour.
Do all students benefit from support?
In a word – yes. You don’t have to be anxious or depressed to find a wellbeing message useful. Often it’s something really simple that helps people. We know this because, 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.
Asking for help can be very difficult. Sometimes students don’t know where to go or, as we know from research, are embarrassed to seek help. Messages can pre-empt problems for many, but if a problem does occur the messages can signpost to where to go for help.
The message programme is 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. It’s important that they too know how to help someone who is struggling and where to get them help.
When students do face serious problems such as mental health issues, sexual health problems or urgent contraception needs, a digital solution means students can get the help they require, when and where they need it. It’s private and immediate.
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. Students are keen to get help: over three quarters (76%) of UK students believe more wellbeing support from their university, support to help fit into ‘university life’ and ways to talk about their unhappiness would stop them from dropping out of studies. Which is good for students, and for universities.