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Editorial: Mobile app is not a sufficient substitute for mental health services on campus

By Editorial Board

Oct. 24, 2019 12:03 a.m.

UCLA seems to be taking a wildly technological approach to mental health services on campus, and they’ll be the first to let you know – there’s an app for that.

The only issue is that students’ mental well-being is a little more complicated than some sophisticated coding.

UCLA researchers from the Screening and Treatment for Anxiety and Depression program released a mobile app two summers ago in conjunction with UCLA’s Grand Depression Challenge that serves as a mental health tracker for students. The app, Mental Health Tracker, requires students to take a 5-10 minute survey in order to diagnose and assess signs of anxiety and depression and suggest personalized treatment plans.

Since its implementation, the app has seen almost 5,000 students sign up.

Mental health services at UCLA have long been a dismal affair. Counseling and Psychological Services is the sole avenue for students seeking help, but it’s an organization that has been understaffed and underfunded since its conception. With the STAND program and its app joining the fray of mental health resources on campus, CAPS’ load might be lightened – but it doesn’t mean students will be any better off.

It is safe to assume students would be more willing to go to an app to divulge mental health concerns rather than a specialist at CAPS since face-to-face contact is often one of the barriers to personalized mental health care. But once students open the app and get their results, there is still no guarantee they will seek out the help they are offered. And while the results are kept confidential, STAND will inevitably prioritize its own long-term research – leaving the students it diagnoses in the lurch when the test trial is over.

One of the standard options given to students who complete the 50-question survey is an online course in mental wellness, which seems to be a pretty passive solution to the serious mental health issues STAND claims to identify.

Alternatively, when a student’s answers are considered concerning or threatening, they trigger an immediate and emergency referral to a specialist – in exchange for acting as graduate students’ research subject.

The nuance of mental health care is something that, arguably, cannot be adequately performed by a machine. Removing a compassionate face and dehumanizing the process of seeking help isn’t what students meant when they asked for more mental health resources.

And boiling down students’ intricate concerns to ones and zeros is a pointless game to play at best and a dangerous one at worst.

At its core, STAND is a research program. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, UCLA should not market it as an alternative to consistent mental health services on campus. The Mental Health Tracker might not leave students that much worse off, considering the already dismal state of UCLA’s mental health services prior to this app. But the Grand Depression Challenge should be about more than clinical pet projects – it needs to spread awareness and promote real, tangible change.

UCLA needs to recognize it takes more than a single app to sufficiently accommodate students’ mental health in the coming years.

Even Apple knew there was more to iPhones than just the apps.

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