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Using mHealth to Connect With Students in Crisis

Faced with rising suicide rates and heavy counseling center traffic, colleges across the country are using digital health platforms to help students access behavioral health services.

By Eric Wicklund

- In 2008, Colorado State University saw eight suicides over two semesters. Now the school is looking to mHealth to keep that from happening again.

The Fort Collins-based university, with an enrollment of about 33,000, has launched an online portal to reach students in crisis – or those with any number of questions that they want answered, at any time and at any place. The strategy, officials say, is to connect to students and help them when they need it, rather than waiting for them to come to the campus health center.

“It’s an extension of our counseling services,” says Anne Hudgens, executive director of the CSU Health Network and the school’s former dean of students. “Students live in a 24/7 world, facing a lot of stress and pressure … and we’re not open 24/7.”

Hudgens, who well remembers the spate of suicides eight years ago, said college officials realized they had to “get upstream” and reach students before those problems become serious. The needed to create a resource that students could access at any time, and from any place. It also had to be anonymous and safe – and yet personalized, so that each student would get the help that he or she needs.

CSU isn’t the only college struggling to meet a behavioral health need. According to the American College Health Association, 85 percent of college students report feeling overwhelmed at some point, and more than half say they’re “very lonely” or feeling hopeless. Furthermore, the ACHA estimates that one in four students has a behavioral health issue, and 40 percent of them aren’t getting help.

Colleges and universities are ideal locations for telehealth, and companies like CampusMD, American Well and TruClinic have launched platforms designed to give students with busy schedules and a nagging health issue a virtual link to a doctor or the campus health center.

But with more than 1,000 college suicides recorded each year, according to Emory University, there’s a distinct need for programs that target students with behavioral health issues. Because it’s a typically sensitive subject, school officials want to carve that program out of the health platform and treat it as a separate service.

“Students are dealing with a myriad of issues, and often they don’t even think about it in terms of mental health,” says Joe Conrad, a CSU alumnus and founder of Grit Digital Health, which partnered with CSU to launch the [email protected] portal. “What we wanted was a solution that really met students where they are … and allowed them to find what they need.”

“They’re accustomed to having mobile devices,” says Conrad. “This is anonymous, it’s available to them 24/7, and it’s something they can access very quickly in a safe and secure location.”

While originally targeted at suicide prevention, the portal, now in its second year, has expanded to include information on health, nutrition, sleep, sex and exercise. It offers links to online and campus resources, as well as an online cognitive therapy program run by Silvercloud Health. It even offers resources to deal with global and national events that might affect the student populace.

Hudgens says the portal, launched on February 22, has recorded 11,340 sessions as of September 14, including 8,000 unique visitors and about a 30 percent return rate. That it’s being accessed by about a quarter of CSU’s student population “is really impressive,” she says.

Conrad says the portal is now in use at Colorado Mesa University, and he’s talking with some 20 colleges and universities across the country. 

Dig Deeper:

mHealth Becomes a Valuable Tool in the Battle Against Suicide

mHealth Gets Into the Mood

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