A Lesson in Innovation: How Digital Health in Massachusetts Can Address the "Big 3 Mental Health Afflictions" on College Campuses

September 24, 2019
Source 
MassDigitalHealth.org editors

What in the world is the “college student mental health crisis?” Did you know that 1 in 3 college students need/want/use some form of mental health treatment, with trend lines rising? Compared to 15-20 years ago, this rate has increased by over 230% and mental health diagnoses among college respondents have nearly doubled in the last decade alone.

Recent survey data report that in the past year, 3 out of 5 students experienced overwhelming anxiety and 2 out of 5 were too depressed to function. However, less than 15% actually sought services at their campus counseling centers, a statistic reflecting a growing concern among college administrators. Sadly, this issue hit very close to home in a recent Boston Globe article regarding suicides on campus.

Technology has long been disrupting every aspect of our lives—from how we power our cars to how we diagnose diseases and even how we grow and harvest food—but mental health treatment has largely remained the same.

In 2018, over 90% of college-aged Americans owned a smartphone and looked at that phone nearly 100 times a day. It is clear that the rise in communication technology—especially among the millennial population—has created a digital landscape shaping the way college students interact with the world. 

This constant connectivity empowers digital health revolutionaries to break down mental health care barriers, innovating solutions to the big 3 mental health afflictions on campus: stress, anxiety, and depression.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2016 data, there were 117 colleges and universities in Massachusetts that enroll over 400,000 students seeking bachelors or associates degrees. The Boston-area alone is home to more than 250,000 of those students. Students across Massachusetts and the nation are starting the new college year, searching for the right laptops, textbooks, and other back-to-school staples - but what digital health tools are essential for a successful year? Below we highlight some ongoing research and tools created here in Massachusetts that are tackling this critically important topic.

1. Stress

Stress is increasingly becoming synonymous with college; 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do, and 30% note that this stress has negatively affected their academic performance.

Knowing that this stress is linked to a plethora of physical health ailments—including high blood pressure, weakened immune system, fertility problems, and insomnia—finding solutions for stress management is of critical importance.

Sara Lazar, a psychiatry researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, is leveraging brain imaging technology to study one potential solution: meditation. Through MRI technology, Lazar’s team found that 40 minutes of daily meditation increased gray matter in the hippocampus—linked to higher emotional regulation—and decreased gray matter in the amygdala—lowering levels of fight or flight symptoms. Not only were participants reporting decreased levels of stress, brain imaging showed a neurobiological basis to explain that reduction.

How can digital health bring this solution into the hands of college students? Boston-based startup 10% Happier is doing just that. The 10% Happier team has developed an app bringing guided meditations and practical teachings to everyone everywhere, lowering stress one breath at a time.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety is swiftly becoming the most prevalent mental health affliction among young adults; 30 million U.S. adults will experience their first serious episode of anxiety by the time they turn 22—the typical age of a college graduate.

Although the statistic reporting that over 20% of college students have a clinical diagnosis of anxiety is staggering, even more overwhelming is the knowledge that hundreds of thousands more are suffering in silence.

One of the biggest barriers to mental health treatment is the cultural norm of today’s college experience; many students don’t recognize a need for treatment, believing that clinically significant symptoms of anxiety are just part of college life. And with social stigma a growing concern, particularly on college campuses, students aren’t reaching out for the help they need.

A Boston-based digital health tool that breaks down these barriers is Buoy Health. Powered by A.I., the Buoy symptom checker guides users through the steps of identifying what’s wrong and forming a plan to get to the right care. Through the anonymous Buoy platform, college students can quickly understand their anxiety symptoms and treatment options, without the fear of social stigma.

3. Depression

Did you know that depression is the leading cause of disability among people ages 15-44 nationally?

Even more disconcerting, adults ages 18-22—the age of typical college students—are the loneliest generation and report worse health than any other subset of the population. These findings highlight the link between social connection and health, and offer a potential solution to fighting the loneliness—and consequent depression—epidemic on college campuses.

While pharmaceuticals and clinical treatment for depression are effective management tools in the universal population, the student population craves a more relatable approach.

In this digitally linked generation, students know students and they are turning to each other when struggling with health. They know their peers because they are standing in their shoes, making them experts in the most effective strategies to engage fellow students, promote mental health, and alleviate isolation.

Marigold Health, Boston-based winner of the 2019 MassChallenge HealthTech Judges’ Choice Award, is leveraging the relatability of peer support groups to build a platform that gives the most vulnerable populations a place to be heard. The benefits are two-fold; patients are connected to the medical care they need and are welcomed into a community that decreases isolation and improves depression in and of itself. Integrating seamlessly into the digitally-connected world of college campuses, Marigold is the depression solution students need, delivered in the way they want to receive it.

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The evidence is clear; there is strong and expanding interest in digital mental health solutions, especially among college students. As a hub for digital health and mental health research and innovation, Massachusetts is leading the charge to drive down college mental health afflictions and save our students.

Know a student facing a mental health challenge? Tech might not be the answer. Refer them to their campus' health or mental health facility, or have them contact one of several suicide prevention hotlines available in Massachusetts.