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Does user engagement data tell us the whole story?

Research shows that the negative stigma traditionally associated with mental health has decreased significantly over the years. Nevertheless, most students who experience mental health challenges are likely hesitant to share their journeys, especially with authority figures. The sensitive nature of this field can make it difficult for college administrators to assess the effectiveness of their investments in improving mental health on campuses.

Schools that institute mental health-related technology often assume that their investment is only successful if the user engagement numbers on their platform are high. However, engagement data alone gives incomplete information. From our hands-on experiences speaking with many students over the last few years, we at The Zone see ways tech can improve students’ lives that cannot solely be captured in engagement data.

We find that our technology can significantly help students while they wait for in-person counseling. A lot of campuses are experiencing a tremendous backlog in the demand for mental health services. On some, it can take a struggling student 6-8 weeks to get an appointment with a mental health counselor. In that time, students are at serious risk of consequences, including: disruption towards academic progress and worsening health outcomes. Our application can help counseling departments prioritize students in need, and can also provide students with basic support and hope while they wait for services. Tech will never replace counseling as the primary resource for healing, but tech can help bridge the divides between campus counseling departments and struggling students.

Moreover, mental health applications will only work if it is adopted into a campus culture that values wellness interventions as a top-down priority. A college that does not back its investment by training coaches, counselors and administrators to value mental health will not see the results they expect from the technology. Our conversations with students indicate that they can sense when a school is truly invested in mental health vs. when they are perceived as merely trying to “check a box.”. Top-down investment in mental health interventions are necessary in order to achieve positive health outcomes to reach their expected potential.

It is important to note that a tech platform introduced into a school will take time to be adapted into a part of a campus culture. It may take three years or more for word of an app’s effectiveness to spread. The application has the best chance of success when administrators make a strong effort to introduce the technology to the student body, as well as, ensuring simple and easy access for the students. The greatest opportunities for campus integration will only come when the students themselves are able to become comfortable using the app and adapting it to their daily routines.

So what kind of numbers should colleges expect when it comes to viewer engagement in their mental health technology? We are seeing that, on average, in any 30-day retention, a digital health tech will engage 20%-30% of its users. In any given month, however, the users will be different students. As with adults, students face different issues at different times. This means that each month, the platform will engage a different group of users, ultimately reaching a wide swath of the community. This is success.

Administrators can take specific steps to assess the success of an investment in mental health technology. We recommend the following:

  • Assess the number of students being seen each month by counseling services, as well as the number waiting to be seen. Consider adding additional staffing where needed, preferably with a diverse set of subspecialty interest (ex: disordered eating, LBGTQ+ health, racial/ethnic minorities, etc.) Mental health apps are most effective if the counseling departments can keep up with the demand they identify.

  • Run an NPS score with students to see if the school’s tech platform is having the anticipated impact on the culture of wellness on campus. If not, be willing to adjust the school’s approach to maximize the investment.

  • Pay particular attention to underclassmen engagement with the platform. The app will have a greater opportunity for adaptation into the general campus culture if it is impressed upon the students with the longest potential time for use, and also with the least competing overall experiences with mental health services on campus.

  • Ensure the entire community knows about all available resources. It may take an aggressive communications campaign to make students aware of the various ways in which the school is supporting them. Utilize student and campus leaders to help get the message out.

It is crucial that colleges working to improve their mental health models consider all of these factors as they assess the impact of their investments. While viewer engagement numbers offer one slice of insight, we must also evaluate the individual experiences and the opportunities for campus integration as more comprehensive measures of success. Schools will need to exhibit patience as adequate time is required for their long-term investments to materialize.



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