How digital services can benefit student mental health

As demand for university counselling services rise, Big White Wall is offering 24/7 support via a smartphone app

By Katie Barron, Big White Wall PR and Communications

In 2013, a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that one in five students considered themselves to have a mental health problem, while anxiety, insomnia or lack of motivation affected over half of respondents. Unsurprisingly, demand for university counselling services has risen by a third since 2008. University mental health and wellbeing services face the challenge of supporting soaring numbers of struggling students, and are under particular pressure at peak times such as exam season.

Another problem is how to help those students who do not present at counselling services at all, due to stigma, fear of acknowledging a problem, or for other reasons. The same NUS survey found that 64% of students experiencing a mental health problem do not receive any formal support. However, just as millions of students use smartphones, laptops and tablets to connect with friends, manage their finances and find their way around, they can now use those same devices take control of their emotional wellbeing from anywhere, and at any time.

One such innovative digital wellbeing service is Big White Wall, which offers 24/7 support at or via smartphone app. The service includes an anonymous peer community, where members can share experiences or talk privately to counsellors whenever they need support. Or, if words are too difficult, members can make “bricks”, expressing themselves in artwork and images. There is also a range of guided self-help courses on topics such as managing anxiety and positive thinking. Counsellors (called Wall Guides) are on hand 24/7 to moderate the service and provide additional support.

Rather than replacing the essential and valuable work of university counselling services, digital services can be there when other services can’t. They can provide support out of hours, during the holidays and help increase capacity at times of high demand, as well as reaching part-time or distance-learning students. In fact, in a survey of students at one university, 81% said they used Big White Wall exclusively outside office hours. University counselling services can find it helpful to have Big White Wall as an additional outside hours support, both for the students they see – and those they don’t.

This is because digital solutions can also help support those who would not usually seek help for a mental health problem. Over half of students surveyed by Big White Wall had used the service to talk about an issue or experience they had never disclosed anywhere else. Being able to access support from the palm of their hand, as and when they needed it, allowed students to seek support when they otherwise might not have done.

As an anonymous peer community, Big White Wall is able to overcome the stigma that is still attached to mental health. Just knowing that they are not alone in what they are going through is often a great comfort and enables people to see that their experience is not unusual – a particular benefit for students who may be struggling with mental health issues for the first time. Dr Simon Wilson, Clinical Director of Big White Wall, said, ‘The online space offers a fantastic opportunity to help people who might otherwise never reach out, and joining a community of peers can help to normalize the experience of distress.’

And for many students, making mental health support as easy to access as their emails might mean the difference between reaching out for help, or continuing to struggle on silently.

Big White Wall was recently highly commended for ‘best service’ at the GO Awards Scotland for its work with the University of Edinburgh. The GO Awards seek to recognise excellence in public procurement. Big White Wall is available free to all University of Edinburgh students, and works with many other universities throughout the UK.