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College Students Are More Lonely Than Ever — Can Technology Help?

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University of Denver

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Alumni  •
Nathaan Demers
Nathaan Demers

Since graduating from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, Nathaan Demers (PsyD ’14) has focused his time and effort on upstream behavioral health innovations, with a focus on college aged students. Today, Demers is vice president and director of clinical programs at Grit Digital Health, where he and his team innovate to connect individuals with the right resources at the right time to support their mental health and well-being.

“Loneliness on college campuses is very much an issue that in my opinion hasn't gotten the attention it deserves," Demers says. “Loneliness is correlated with increased risk for attrition, anxiety, depression, substance use and suicidal ideation."

Once considered trivial, loneliness is a challenge facing hundreds of thousands of people around the world. These numbers have only been exacerbated by recent times of extended social isolation. Vivek Murthey, the 19th U.S. surgeon general under the administration of President Barack Obama, has made combating loneliness, specifically in the workplace, his focus since leaving the White House. At one time he compared the effects of loneliness on the body to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” Murthey wrote in 2017 in the Harvard Business Review. Today, positive steps are being taken toward solving the problem.

YOU at College, a digital platform, came about through a partnership between Grit Digital Health and Colorado State University (CSU). CSU recognized the mental health crisis that they, and all campuses across the country were facing and decided to take a proactive, and innovative approach. Following a full human-centered research and design process with students, YOU at College was born.

Grit approached the problem from a scientific perspective. That means lots of research.

“We believe in using a human-centered design process in all that we do and that we need to very deeply understand this challenge from students perspectives before we try to design a solution to solve it,” Demers says.

YOU at College is a digital well-being platform that students can access from their phone, tablet, or computer. The platform personalizes resources across three domains: Succeed (academic & career success), Thrive (physical & mental health), and Matter (purpose, meaning, & connections). Those specific domains were created as a direct result of Grit’s research with students.

"In making YOU at College, one of the key insights from our human-centered research and design process is that if we just made a behavioral health tool, only 10% of students that identify as having a behavioral health issue will use that platform,” Demers says. “We knew we had to go upstream and support the whole college experience because all of those aspects of college absolutely impact mental health. We know that 77% of students indicate that their mental health negatively impacted their academic performance in the past four weeks. We need a way to reach these students and scalable, digital technologies are the way to do so.” 

Thrive, Demers says, is what they originally set out to make. It’s all about health — both mental and physical. Thrive is the area of YOU at College that talks directly about loneliness ,depression, stress, anxiety, fitness and nutrition. From evidence-based/informed tips and tricks for dealing with those emotions to connecting students directly to in-person resources on campus, YOU connects students to supports increase resilience and well-being.

Succeed is focused completely on academic and career success. It emphasizes study tips, tutoring, resume building and more. It’s a great resource for students, but what makes it so valuable is that it seems to be the trailhead that guides students toward Thrive.

Demers isn’t surprised that so many students find Succeed first. "Most of our student users enter the platform through Succeed because it’s ‘acceptable’ to be stressed about academics or finances. This highlights the importance of our holistic well-being model, helping each and every student enter the site then find information that feels relevant. While about 35% of students come to the site specifically for mental health information, over 55% reported connecting with these resources and implementing them in their everyday life.”

Matter is all about purpose and connection on campus. It covers everything from making friends to finding a sense of purpose. Matter helps students get more involved in their campus community, which is correlated with students having a happier, healthier, and more successful college experience.

YOU at Campus’ efforts to support mental health and well-being are working, with 76% of students reporting improved stress management and 87% of students reporting learning about a new campus resource as a result of time spent with the portal.

According to Demers, 98% of first-year participants reported learning a new skill, fact, tip or resource to help them succeed across the domains of well being. In a recent study undertaken at California State University, Fullerton, overseen by Dr. Kevin Thomas (PsyD ’13), 100% of students said that YOU was a valuable tool for their health and well-being and 93% said that it was relevant to their identities.

Grit understands that it may seem counterintuitive to use technology, which has been linked to exacerbating loneliness, particularly when it comes to social media use.

“When it comes to technology, the jury is really out on what it does to our overall well being,” Demers explains. “Rather than how much one uses technology is actually less important than how one uses it. Whether we like it or not, students are spending a lot of time on their phones. When it comes to the student that is hesitant to go to the counseling center, we can connect with that student on their own terms in a private and confidential way so that someone can feel comfortable exploring a difficult topic such as sexual assault, prescription drug abuse, loneliness, or acute suicidal ideation – then connect with supports when the time is right.”

Grit believes that its technology can help in the fight against the current mental health crisis on campuses, and they have the data to support that claim. In addition to being deployed at over 120 campus across the country, YOU at College has a built-in campus analytics dashboard. This dashboard protects the confidentiality and anonymity of student users by only providing aggregate data, but that aggregate data can help colleges “keep their finger on the pulse of the most pressing issues their campus is experiencing and break that down by student demographics,” Demers explains.

In addition to YOU at College, Grit recently released a new app called Nod. This app was created as a result of a joint partnership with HopeLab. The app was designed with the input of over 100 students from diverse backgrounds.

Nod is designed to help college students specifically bolster social relationships to combat the issue of loneliness. Nod uses principles from positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy to reinforce the positive social habits and skills that assist in building a community.

One of the major advantages of a digital platform is the ability to quickly adapt to current circumstances. That’s exactly what Grit has done with Nod. The app has been updated to help students grow and maintain their social lives during COVID-19 and in the fall of 2020 will offer content for both distance and on campus learning environments.

Additionally, Nod underwent a randomized controlled trial at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2019 revealing that it indeed supports the most at risk students when it comes to depression and loneliness. “We are incredibly proud to have developed an app that has shown efficacy in helping students to build meaningful social relationships as it is very much uncharted territory. We are very excited to continue to expand our Nod network to campuses throughout the country to further validate and support students at scale.”  

Nod was also accepted into the Headstream Accelerator put on by SecondMuse with the goal of transcreating the model to a high school aged population.

You can learn more about You at College and Nod.