Myth: digital-only solutions are the answer to university wellbeing

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As the lines blur between our personal, academic, and professional lives, staff are increasingly turning to their employers to better support their mental health and wellbeing. Looking for easy wins and low-effort solutions, many organisations (including universities) are banking on self-help digital tools as the answer.

With between 165,000 and 325,000 health and wellness apps now commercially available, these apps are typically convenient, widely available, highly scalable, relatively easy to implement, and they delegate much of the responsibility back to students and staff themselves.

What the evidence says

Lack of ongoing engagement

Self-help apps risk user drop-off. This can result in delays to care or the absence of care (if there is no human support or ongoing follow-up).

“Widely celebrated as the solution to the supply and demand imbalance in mental health care, digital mental health interventions have flooded the marketplace to supplement specialty mental health care. However, the evidence supporting their efficacy is mixed (see also here), and engagement with digital mental health interventions, particularly mobile apps that lack ancillary human interaction, is abysmal. Users are unlikely to use these interventions more than a few times,” conclude Rudd and Beidas from the Center for Mental Health, Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Carlo, Renn and Areán, from the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, together with Ghomi from the University’s Department of Neurology concur: “The vast majority [of health apps] remain largely unevaluated… [and] even when apps are evidence-based, their public health impact is often curbed by poor adherence”.

“Furthermore, the movement of specialty mental health care, an intensive public health intervention, from the hands of clinicians and into standalone digital interventions ignores decades of research about the importance of social support and may further isolate individuals who need human connection the most. Given the robust social support literature, it is not surprising that digital interventions with the highest levels of engagement are those that include some form of human interaction,” said Rudd and Beidas.

Gaps in patient assessment

Digital app users often struggle to fit their circumstances into the predefined categories in an app. Limitations of the tools can also lead to a ‘Dr Google’ type of self-diagnosis. This represents a dangerous gap in patient assessment because it neglects that many wellbeing issues are complex and multilayered.

For example, “around 51 per cent of our support cases are caused by something other than the issue stated”. To illustrate, “self-diagnosed financial stress might, upon professional triage, uncover a need for urgent safety support for domestic violence, plus mental health support for isolation, depression, and suicide ideation, all underwritten by a complex medical problem,” says Dr Jamie Phillips, Medical Director at Sonder.

Holistic wellbeing

Digital wellbeing solutions have many benefits:

  • They empower and educate, as information is available at your fingertips;
  • They encourage prevention and early intervention, because they keep wellbeing issues front of mind;
  • They help to lower the barrier to care, so people can get help faster;
  • They offer anonymity, for people who are intimidated by in-person appointments; and
  • Their 24/7 availability means that they effectively bring healthcare to you when you need it the most, rather than make you go out (sometimes in the middle of the night) to seek health advice.

But as per the evidence above, digital solutions should be part of a holistic wellbeing strategy where they supplement not replace clinical care by medical professionals, because:

  1. Digital solutions without an in-person element can risk a lack of ongoing engagement; and
  2. Self-diagnosis within digital solutions can risk a gap in patient assessment.

Want to learn more?

To read the other four myths about student and staff wellbeing, we invite you to download our evidence-based report, 5 myths about student and staff wellbeing.

For more information about how Sonder can help you rethink your university’s student and staff wellbeing strategies, we invite you to contact us here.

About Sonder

Sonder is an Active Care technology company that helps organisations improve the wellbeing of their people so they perform at their best. Our mobile app provides immediate, 24/7 support from a team of safety, medical, and mental health professionals - plus onsite help for time-sensitive scenarios. Accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS), our platform gives leaders the insights they need to act on tomorrow's wellbeing challenges today.

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Sonder is reimagining health, safety and wellbeing support. Sonder proves human centric care leads to earlier intervention. Sonder impacts one person at a time to drive meaningful change across an organisation. Sonder understands people and how to support them.

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