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Revolutionizing Mental Health on Campus

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Mental health is a growing concern on campus. During the 2020–21 school year, more than 60% of college students experienced some kind of disturbance to their mental health – a 50% increase from 2013. 

As researchers have noted, there are a few caveats that come with this statistic. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic has almost certainly contributed to a spike in mental health issues, on campus and beyond. For another, increased reporting of mental illness might not actually be a bad thing: it could be a signal that students are less afraid to talk openly about their mental health, and to seek out treatment when they need it. 

Either way, our collective awareness of the importance of mental health has grown massively over the past decade. As a result, academic institutions across the U.S. and Canada have been taking on much greater roles in supporting their students’ psychological well-being, expanding the types of supports available and embracing new ways to deliver mental health care.

Mental health on one of America’s biggest campuses

The University of California, Berkeley is no exception to the trend. As one of the world’s top public universities, the UC Berkeley community includes more than 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students. 

Before the pandemic, the university already hosted resources online for students and staff to use, in addition to in-person supports like counseling. But when COVID turned up the pressures that were eroding students’ mental health, the school realized it was time to move towards a more holistic approach. They envisioned a revamped online portal, providing students with the best digital support possible — while also making it easier for students in need of more intensive treatment to make the transition from digital to face-to-face services. 

The future of student mental health care

There’s a growing body of research showing that digital mental health (DMH) platforms can be effective tools for improving users’ mental health. And as demand for mental health services increases, accessible online tools are vital for reducing the burden on in-person service providers. 

But at the end of the day, every digital mental health platform needs to be tailored to its specific audience and goals. What works for one group of people may not work well for another, especially where something as personal as mental health is concerned. The types of support that people need vary widely depending on their age, gender, cultural background, and more — and those needs can also change and evolve throughout an individual’s mental health journey.

Behavioral design is a powerful tool for building effective digital mental health (DMH) platforms. It’s only through careful user research that we can really understand what kinds of help users are looking for, and what modalities work best for them. Taking a scientific, data-driven approach allows us to identify the specific barriers that are holding users back, and then build targeted solutions to address them. 

TDL partnered with UC Berkeley to do just that. We led a user research initiative exploring students’ attitudes towards digital mental health services, their experiences with their school’s existing digital mental health platform, and how the revamped platform could help ensure their needs were met. Then we translated our findings into concrete design interventions, leveraging behavioral tools like the COM-B framework to address key pain points. 

Breaking down barriers

Good UX design is a must for any kind of digital product. But when it comes to mental health, there are a lot of additional barriers that need to be considered. 

For one, mental disturbances like depression and anxiety can strain our limited cognitive resources. That means that students looking for support online may be more prone to information overload and other cognitive biases, increasing the risk that they might click away before getting the support they need. To counter this, DMH platforms need to have a more streamlined choice architecture

Guiding users to where they need to be

Personalization is also a valuable tool for sculpting meaningful user journeys — but this isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Individuals who are just making their first forays into the world of mental health may not be able to identify their needs or wants: in our user research with UC Berkeley students, we found that 73% of respondents who had accessed the school’s mental health platform before didn’t know what kind of support they needed (or if they needed it at all) when they first started exploring the website. 

There’s also the issue of trust. With concerns about data privacy on the rise, users need to feel that digital mental health platforms have their best interests at heart, and that their personal data will be kept private. 

The challenge is to preserve user autonomy while still finding ways to channel data into a more meaningful, personalized experience. With that in mind, our recommendations for the UC Berkeley website aimed to create a user experience of facilitated self-discovery: scaffolding the design and architecture of the website to signpost the way to potentially useful resources, but ultimately leaving the user completely in control of their own journey. 

Our work on the UC Berkeley platform will help to ensure that the school’s sprawling student body has frictionless access to high-quality care, at the moments when they need it most. 

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