Harnessing the power of technology can help vulnerable students

Having dropped out of university because of loneliness and depression, Hayley Mulenda argues that effective use of data analytics and greater diversity of academic staff are crucial

September 4, 2020
Source: istock
Levels of psychological distress among students are rising

My life spiralled out of control when I went to university in 2015.

Student mental health wasn’t an issue back then in the way it is now, so I tried to ignore what I was going through and it got worse.

I lost my appetite. I stopped talking to people. I jumped off all my social media platforms. I stopped going out. I wanted to shut down and quiet the noise in my head. That’s when suicidal thoughts started to creep in. I was in a dark place and I was frightened.

Worryingly, among today’s undergraduates, experiences like mine are all too common. In March 2019, an online surveyof almost 38,000 UK university students showed rising rates of psychological distress and illness, with “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm.

For me, the move to university was my first away from home. Like almost nine in 10 of the students polled, I struggled with feelings of anxiety. Like 33 per cent of them, I was lonely. This was largely because, in my halls of residence, I seemed to be the only black girl, the only student from London and one of just a few from a working-class background. I couldn’t relate to anyone and, because I’d previously given motivational talks as a public speaker at school, it felt like failure not to be able to motivate myself. Things just unravelled.

So there needs to be greater diversity across the sector, and that goes for staff, too. Higher Education Statistics Agency figures published in February show that less than 1 per cent of university professors are black and that ethnic minority academics are less likely to win research grants.

Yet I was one of the lucky ones. When I fell into that dark place, my family brought me home and, with their love and support, I came to recognise that I needed help. I set myself little milestones and trained myself into a new routine.

We need to give greater support to young people as they transition from school. In freshers’ week, you can’t send people out drinking and think integration just happens. Student support needs to be more accessible and diverse and it needs to work at a practical level. If a university’s mental health support service is way across town, someone struggling with low self-esteem, who can’t even get down the corridor to have a shower, isn’t going to make it to an appointment.

My mental health contact at university was an older, white man. He could have been the kindest person in the world but I still couldn’t relate to him as a young black woman from East London. 

There is also another way in which institutions can provide vital help.

When I was suffering with my mental health, my attendance dropped and the university threatened to kick me off the course.

Yet learners who aren’t engaging, who aren’t turning up to lectures, shouldn’t be threatened; they should be flagged up to professionals and supported. Fortunately, the technology to do that already exists: learning analytics pull data together to help institutions identify changes in students’ behaviour and see when they might be at risk of failing or dropping out.

If a student who started the term going to the library a lot suddenly stops going, then that’s something to check – to reach out, see if they’re OK and provide any extra help they require.

To support universities in doing this ethically (and with the input and permission of students), Jisc, the education and technology not-for-profit, and the Information Commissioner’s Office have produced aCode of practice for wellbeing and mental health analytics. Jisc has also developed a series of case studies showing how universities and colleges can communicate effectively and build trust among students so as to harness the power of data analytics.

I know that for students who are struggling timing is crucial. For me, the right person stepping in at the right time could have made all the difference. Using data carefully and supportively could be a game-changer.

Hayley Mulendais an award-winning speaker and author. She is now happily completing a degree at a different university.

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Reader's comments (2)

My son had issues at University. He stopped attending classes and failed to submit work. The University sent him an email 3 months later asking why. They didn't follow it up and offered no intervention or support. He could have actually been dead for all the monitoring that was taking place. He only left last year. The duty of care and interest in students struggling in reality, was appalling.
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