Starting university is exciting; filled with high expectations of independence, hard work and loads of fun. But it can be equally overwhelming and isolating, leading to many experiencing depression and anxiety.

When students experience low mood, many do not know how to find support or feel comfortable opening up to new acquaintances. Similarly, leaving the bubble of university can be both exciting and challenging, with job applications, rejection, and the pressure of repaying loans often triggering low self-esteem, lack of confidence and depression.

At university, I sought support from their counselling services and had NHS CBT sessions after graduating. I’ve also witnessed people close to me cope with depression and receive different treatments, so I was curious to see how digital technology might help. A Design Jam Hackathon hosted by NCUB, Experience Design Group (XDs), and Big Radical asked innovators to develop digital technology to combat depression in young people and university students as part of the National Centre’s Digital Health Task Force.

There are countless apps and digital technologies aimed at managing depression, anxiety and low mood, but knowing what will help is difficult, and it is easy to question the reliability of some. Also, the effects of social media on mental health is often raised and questioned (1), so I felt I needed to be convinced that digital technology could have a positive impact and offer another support system to the traditional talking therapies.

University counselling services are typically over-subscribed with limited resources. One study showed growth of 50% in students accessing counselling (2), putting enormous pressure on university and NHS resources, so young people may not have access to professional help for weeks. Also, stigmas associated with depression can reduce the likelihood of reaching out for help, an important first step to recovery (3). The Design Jam showed digital technology has the potential to provide private, non-judgmental platforms for users to seek advice, search for professional help and understand their own or close one’s depression whilst alleviating the pressure on counselling services.

The Design Jam group were presented with two case studies of young people; one who was experiencing a depressive episode, and their friend who wanted to help. These case studies helped the group understand patterns of experience and responses. Students may feel pressure to keep up appearances and conceal their feelings for fear of judgment from peers or concerning family, especially during intense periods such as ‘freshers’ week’ and exams. Changes in behaviour including irregular sleeping patterns, alcohol and drug consumption, loss of motivation and general lack of self-care is typical of university students, and are also common signs of depression. It can be difficult to detect those suffering from depression because it may just appear to be ‘student behaviour’ rather than behaviour that is concerning or irregular for that person (4).

The Design Jam teams created concepts, designed technology functionality such as apps, chat bots, wearable technology, augmented reality and peer to peer support groups, and mapped out sources of investment. I was especially interested in the concepts that encouraged users to do small activities like go for coffee with a friend or a walk to obtain a sense of achievement or enjoyment, and reduce feelings of isolation.

That a room full of creative strangers over only two days had conceptualised, designed and presented ideas and potential solutions was extremely impressive, demonstrating the power of multidisciplinary collaboration and innovative thinking.

Challenges for the future

Deciding which treatment is suitable can be confusing and time-consuming, and opening up to another person can be intense. Digital technology could help diffuse this challenge, potentially mitigate the development of a depressive episode and could encourage more young people to seek help.

It could also compliment counselling by providing respite for people suffering from depression, or provide advice for that person’s circle of care before they gain access to professional help. Similarly, these platforms could provide support to students once they finish counselling sessions. Perhaps businesses and designers could work with mental health experts at universities and counselling services to develop technology they could promote to students. This could have a huge impact on lots of students who may not otherwise receive immediate support or seek professional help.

There is no quick solution when it comes to treating depression, nor will one technological platform fit all as the type of treatment required depends on an individual’s needs. Also, questions of user safety and data protection would need to be addressed if implemented. However, the Design Jam demonstrated that even though this form of technology is still in its early stages, with more research and development, there is clear potential for technology to provide a more accessible, feasible, and readily available support platform.

by Shakira Malkani
National Centre Project Assistant

(3), Point 9.
(4), pg.4.