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Student mental health crisis – ‘Technology can help turn the tide’

Laurel Marriott

Exploring the current state of mental health within UK universities, and how exercise can help improve it.

The mental health crisis among university students is a growing and urgent concern that has gained significant attention in recent years. Numerous studies have shown, rates of mental health problems among university students have been steadily increasing over the past decade, with mental health conditions reported by students in 2020/21 nearly seven times higher than a decade earlier.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this issue, with students experiencing additional stress and anxiety due to the uncertainty and disruption which came as a result. According to a recent survey conducted by Student Minds, 57% of students self-reported a mental health issue, while 27% had a current diagnosed mental health condition. These figures highlight the pressing need for immediate and effective solutions to support the mental health and well-being of university students.

I believe that sporting and leisure facilities within university settings can play a crucial role in addressing this crisis, as for most students experiencing high levels of stress and pressure, physical activity can be an effective way to manage these feelings and improve overall well-being. In fact, according to the most recent British Active Students Survey, active students are happier, experience less anxiety, and report feeling more confident in finding a job after graduation.

Physical activity can also help to combat loneliness, which is most prevalent among 16–24-year-olds and students. By participating in group fitness classes or sports teams, students can form social connections and feel a sense of belonging within their university community. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and improve overall mental health.

The above said though, universities need to reinforce healthy behaviours in words and in practice. So, while universities might offer advice on sleep, nutrition, physical activity, and coping strategies, they must also empower students to act on this advice. This includes providing easily accessible opportunities on campus for physical activity and exercise – I think the key to unlocking this is technology.

At Gladstone, we work with over 50 universities across the UK and Ireland including the likes of Cambridge, Bath, Southampton, UCL, Warwick and Birmingham, focusing on the implementation of simple, user-friendly digital tools which ensure an inclusive, seamless and attractive fitness experience. It is my opinion that universities simply must consider the use of technology to increase engagement and participation levels amongst the student population to help turn the tide when it comes to student mental health.

With university facilities being quite unique in terms of how diverse they are, and each student having their own individual fitness goals and aspirations, I think technology has an important role to play in ensuring services are tailored to meet the needs of student populations on a collective and individual level. This is both to drive engagement, and to consistently evaluate and improve too.

As an example, digital technologies have a huge role to play in simplifying administrative tasks to enable more meaningful interactions between staff and students. For instance, using digital access gates at check-in allows for redeployment of front desk staff around facilities where the use of fluid concierge style technologies i.e., iPads, can enable staff to better focus on delivering great service, through an established direct line of communication whereby universities can understand student wants and needs to consistently evaluate and improve these.

The transformative power of technology is something that must be considered throughout campus as well, as opposed to being limited to the cornerstones of student environments such as leisure facilities themselves – it is not enough to simply expect all students to actively take steps to improve their mental health, and we must empower them to do so.

For example, mobile apps with targeted sign-up options for classes or gym memberships can empower students to engage with facilities from anywhere, at any time, with the ability to personalise user experience to encourage engagement.

In today’s world, mobile devices have become a ubiquitous part of daily life, with people of all ages checking their mobiles over 100 times a day. As a result, implementing a mobile-first strategy has become essential for leisure operators in all settings, but considering the demographic of university students, I believe it is fundamental here.

Mobile apps can also facilitate communication and engagement between students and fitness professionals, enabling students to receive guidance and support, to track their progress, and to connect with other students who share similar interests in physical activity. This can help students to feel more confident and empowered on their respective fitness journeys, contributing towards positive mental health outcomes.

It is important to note however, that physical activity is not a cure for mental health issues. Mental health is a complex issue that requires a multidisciplinary approach. While promoting healthy habits and encouraging physical activity can contribute to improving mental health, it should be part of a broader strategy that includes access to mental health services and support.

By leveraging technology universities can provide a more personalised and accessible fitness experience for their students, breaking down barriers to participation which in turn, can have a positive impact on mental health and help to improve the overall well-being of students.

Therefore, while physical activity and technology are not the sole solution to the mental health crisis, they are an important piece of the puzzle in promoting overall well-being and creating a supportive environment for university students.

By Laurel Marriott, Higher Education Manager at the UK’s leading leisure management software company Gladstone Ltd

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