ANU Researcher Trial Innovative Online Mental Health Program

CW: mentions of mental illness
scrabble tiles spelling out mental health

Researchers at the Centre for Mental Health Research are currently trialling an innovative, online program designed to assist ANU students with mental health problems. Called the ‘Uni Virtual Clinic’ (UVC), it represents a giant leap in the field of mental health treatment on Australian university campuses.

The UVC will be designed to act as the ‘go-to’ hub for students seeking help. Where it differs from other online mental health services is that it is directly tailored to university students.

The project manager, Lou Farrer, said that existing online mental health services aren’t specific enough to cater to the unique stresses university students experience. ‘We found that university students are a really neglected population,’ she said.

The UVC will be able help sufferers of the most common mental health problems on campus, which Farrer’s research finds to be: depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and anxiety. However, the program will seek to address a wider range of issues as well, including: stress, procrastination, homesickness, financial issues, sexuality, gender, relationships and insomnia.

Farrer is personally very invested in the success of the project. ‘I have a strong interest in getting help to people struggling with mental health problems, who don’t access it,’ she said. University students are a demographic she’s identified as particularly problematic in this regard. ‘We know that help-seeking among university students is lower than other young people their age,’ Farrer said.

This is largely because students are either uninformed about mental health services on campus, nervous about discussing personal mental health problems with a stranger or reluctant to publicize their struggle and accept the stigma that comes with it, she said.

‘There’s another proportion of students who do seek help, and when they do, the existing campus resources, while excellent, are often overburdened,’ Farrer said, noting that waiting lists and a lack of available counselors often stall the help-seeking process for ANU students.

The UVC aims to address these problems. The program will be completely automated, meaning there won’t be any human interaction when using it. This will allow the service to be available at all hours of the day with no waiting lists, making for a speedier process for students seeking help.

In order to use the program, students will have to create their own personal online account, which they’ll have the option to create anonymously. It’s anonymity and lack of human interaction might ease the nerves of students who’ve never sought help for mental health before.

‘We’ve designed the Uni Virtual Clinic so that it’s accessible to students with low-levels of mental health literacy,’ Farrer said. It will give students access to a wide range of useful resources, such as: information sheets about particular mental health problems, online therapy modules and cognitive behavior therapy.

And instead of students being in the dark about where to go for help, the UVC will signpost them to the resources relevant to them, personally. Students will have access to quizzes that check symptoms. Once completed, the quizzes recommend coping mechanisms or if serious enough, point students to ANU counseling services or other relevantresources.

But Farrer said these resources don’t replace face-to-face help. ‘It can’t, and it shouldn’t,’ she said. ‘We’re very careful in making sure that we link people to appropriate face- to-face services if they score really highly on the quizzes.’

Farrer said that in future versions of the UVC, she hopes to make ‘email- therapy’ with therapists a feature.

Though the program is not publicly available to all students at the moment, Farrer and her team are currently running a pilot trial to ensure the program actually helps students. They’re looking for a couple of hundred ANU students to participate.

The success of the trial will help attempts to secure funding for the UVC into the future. ‘We’d like to roll this program out to all students eventually, but we need funding to do this.’

Farrer hopes that by integrating the UVC into the ANU’s health services, the university will become a leader among Australian universities in the field of mental health treatment and research.

Those who want to join the trial can do so at: https:// anu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/ form/SV_enE9nvEGrghzRFr.