Improving Student Mental Health at Scale Using Online and Text-Message Coaching

Improving Student Mental Health at Scale Using Online and Text-Message Coaching 

  • Professor Philip Oreopoulos, Department of Economics, Faculty of Arts & Science

Abstract

This project proposes using online and text-message coaching platforms to specifically target student mental health. To help combat what some commentators are calling the “mental health crisis” on university campuses, this project uses LEAF support to design and experimentally test an intervention that supports student mental health at large scale in a cost-effective way. The project builds on a series of experiments (previously supported by LEAF funding) that explore scalable ways to improve students’ academic outcomes through online and text-message coaching. Based on the latest research in education, social psychology, and behavioral economics, these programs have focused on helping students by providing helpful and timely academic advice, encouraging students to adopt positive perspectives, and helping students to both set and keep salient academic and study goals.  Although these past initiatives have been primarily focused on improving academic outcomes—such as grades or credit accumulation—some have shown positive effects on student well-being, on a greater sense of belonging at U of T, on greater feelings of life satisfaction, and on reductions to feelings of stress. Most previous program participants also expressed gratitude for the coaching programs and more than 90 percent agreed that the program should continue.    

Our intervention will proceed in two parts. First, treated students will complete a one-time online module at the beginning of the academic year, which will be redesigned to contain information about strategies for successfully balancing school with work, family, and other obligations without feeling overwhelmed and to provide students with information on mental health resources on campus. Working with mental health experts on campus and researchers studying positive psychology, we offer students a message that offers a positive reassuring message around self-care while pursuing academic goals. Aiding students with their sense of belonging is especially important for first-generation and minority students, as students with characteristics that are different from most others are at greater risk of feeling social isolation and students with lower social support are more likely to experience mental health problems. Second, treated students will also be offered the opportunity to receive one-way text messages throughout the academic year from our research team. The messages will check in with students to see how they are feeling and offer automated suggestions for improvement and support based on student replies. Text messaging is an incredibly efficient way to reach a large number of students very quickly, and may be particularly cost-effective when aiming to raise awareness of mental health resources.