Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
The growing number of college students who are struggling with their mental health is alarming for a multitude of reasons. Students are the change-makers of tomorrow, yet they often do not receive the care they need from their universities, which can dramatically impact their ability to succeed academically, socially, and professionally.
As campus services struggle to keep up with the rising demand for mental health treatment, students are seeking tools to ease the stress, anxiety, and depression they experience. One such tool can be found in students’ pockets and at their fingertips: mobile mindfulness and behavioral change apps.
“While apps are not substitutes for face-to-face care for serious problems, they are excellent as milder and immediately applicable tools available 24/7,” says Sagar Parikh, M.D., F.R.C.P.C., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and the associate director of the University of Michigan’s Depression Center.
Parikh says good mindfulness apps offer very short, short-length, and medium-length interventions which can fit into everyday life much easier — and more widely accessibly — than the occasional one-hour talk therapy session, or chat with an adviser.
Mobile apps that offer virtual coaching and breathing exercises can be particularly convenient for students who need extra support before an anxiety-inducing event, such as a midterm exam or job interview. Forbes has written that one of the main advantages of using mindfulness apps is that they require no time or financial commitments — obstacles that are all too real for college students.
Not all mindfulness and behavioral change apps are created equally, though, and students should keep that in mind when browsing the app store. An article published in the most recent edition of World Psychiatry says that “most mental health apps that are sold as therapeutic tools have not undergone rigorous evaluation, but instead claim that they are evidence-based because they are informed by evidence-based treatment.”
Parikh notes that students should focus on apps that are backed by accepted psychological models, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness practices. He says the most effective apps are usually aesthetically pleasing in their design, intuitive in their use, and easy to load and launch. (You can check out Thrive Global’s own new app, here.)
Near the top of Parikh’s list of recommended mindfulness apps is Headspace, a popular meditation app, first launched in 2010. Not only does the app include breathing exercises, guided meditations, and other instruction-based ways to improve awareness and concentration, but Parikh points out that it also has been part of 16 published studies showing its health outcomes on stress, focus, and compassion.
Ryan Coughlin, 19, a student at Drexel University, uses Headspace five to six times each week to help him handle the demands of college life.
“In college, it’s easy to compile all of the problems we’re facing and place it in to one big feeling of paranoia or stress,” Coughlin says. “Headspace helps sort that out and filter what I should be worried about.”
Coughlin says he frequently uses the meditation feature, and will occasionally use the sleep mode when he can’t seem to settle down and fall asleep.
Similarly, Su Dam, 20, a student at Temple University, used the Headspace app for about six months and also relied mainly on the app’s meditation features. Though Dam has since stopped using the app — he says his mind would often wander off during meditation sessions — he found it helpful to relax. “When I was using it, I used it to calm myself down whenever I had too many thoughts overwhelming me,” Dam says.
Headspace is not the only mindfulness and meditation app on the market, though, and there are other apps that Parikh says can help users tackle other problems and habits. He also recommends AnxietyCoach, which can help users address fears and worries through cognitive behavioral therapy strategies, such as creating lists of feared activities.
Ellie Ginis, 22, a student at Lehigh University, previously used Headspace and Simple Habit to learn and practice meditation. “If nothing else, the apps gave me an allotted amount of time to stop what I was doing and be with myself, as intentionally as possible. When I was using one of these apps first thing in the morning, it was a really good way for me to start the day in a relatively calm way, even if I knew it would be a stressful day or week ahead,” she says. “Especially the days when you wake up in a bad mood for no reason, the app really helped in that way.”
There is no question that mindfulness and meditation apps are equipped with dozens of features that can help college students get a better grasp on their emotions and well-being. However, Parikh warns that for some students, apps may not be enough. For those students, he recommends talking to on-campus professionals — but apps can still be there every step of the way to help them find relaxation, and fill voids in treatment.
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