Technology and wellbeing: Mental health needs its place on campus study says half of students find online mental health information can be unreliable

Eighty-five per cent of students seek mental health information online, often as the first port of call, according to Reaching Out in College, a new study of help-seeking at third level colleges.

Launched at the annual Technology and Wellbeing conference in Dublin this month and organised by Reachout. com, the study concludes that more than half of students find online mental health information can often be unreliable. "If you do go online [looking for information], you can think you're far worse than you are," was how one student put it.

"Our research found that third-level college endorsement of mental health information online would be helpful," said Gillian Karwig, research officer with who carried out the study.

Including a dedicated mental health section on each student’s portal, tagging popular content on college social media sites (such as on the student union’s Facebook page) and promoting help-seeking in college beyond registration and orientation were among the suggestions.


“It’s also important that colleges promote a culture of understanding around mental health. Mental health needs to be framed as an integral part of everyday life rather than just viewed as mental health problems,” said Karwig.

The study also found two-thirds of students use student counselling services and 58 per cent use the student health service. Eight-seven per cent of students said it was reassuring to have a free counselling service on campus.

“There are long waiting lists for counselling and this can mean students don’t always seek help when they need it most,” Karwig added. “Some colleges have introduced an online booking system which helps, or referrals to external counselling services. However counselling services are more likely to be used on campus.”

Gerry Raleigh, director of the National Office of Suicide Prevention, said: "We need to be mindful to use technology in a positive, constructive way and that we don't replace human interaction with technology. The most important thing of all is that we talk to one another."

Speaking about the Connecting For Life suicide prevention strategy launched in June 2015, he added: “We need to embrace mental health as something personal to us all and stay connected with friends, family and our communities.”

Psychotherapist Colman Noctor spoke about how online sharing of personal information has changed how we managed and felt emotions. "One view is that the emphasis on sharing promotes superficial relationships and self-promotion: What is shared is a selective view of ourself – the socially desirable self versus the realistic self.

“However, often the less socially able individuals spend more time pursuing relationships online and placing more details about themselves online. This can be a form of social anxiety for some, rather than a form of narcissism as some researchers suggest,” said Noctor.

The addictive nature of some social media sites means some people find themselves getting more anxious if “something is happening and they don’t know about it”. “There is a culture out there that if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist. I think this is partly because our physical neighbourhoods are so small now that we’re forcing our kids online to hang out.”

However, according to Noctor, the jury is still out in terms of the long-term effects of our relationships with technology. “We really don’t know the long-term effects of being online yet. We literally sleep with our phones but the iPhone baby is only six now so we don’t know yet the impact on attachment of a mother gazing at a phone,” Noctor added.

Prof Gavin Doherty from the school of computer science at Trinity College Dublin spoke about the rise in popularity of the Silvercloudhealth. com, a professionally supported site which helps people manage their mental health.

“We have found the real potential of the site is its interactivity, how it helps people monitor and record their moods,” he said. “Although is based on eight modules of cognitive behaviour therapy, we found that people choose different parts of the programme and don’t always use it in a linear way.”

At the conference, technologists and online mental health providers joined a panel discussion about the “digital disconnect”. However, interestingly, most agreed that a generational digital disconnect no longer existed.

Oisín Scollard, the co-founder of the online mental health service, said there was no longer a generational digital disconnect because everyone was online now.

“The biggest issue is etiquette and safety online because many people are too trusting about sending images and private content and this can become very dangerous [if it gets into the wrong hands], as has happened recently. I also think that digital dependence will affect the fabric of our society because so much of social media is designed to always attract and encourage addiction.”

Tom Murphy of said demand privacy and encryption must be demanded from governments. Kevin Donoghue from the Union of Students in Ireland said: "I think we disconnect with the consequences of what we do online and that privacy has gone." for details of Reaching Out in College: help-seeking at third level in Ireland.