A new online mental health intervention for college students is now in the final stages of development, and research thus far has shown it to be successful in reducing depression and anxiety and improving self-esteem.
The intervention — known as PLUS (Personality and Living of University Students) — was developed to detect underlying personality risk factors rather than specific mental health symptoms.
To use it, students visit a website and after giving consent complete a set of baseline questionnaires. They then got automated feedback on these questionnaires and a series of intervention modules. After six weeks and 12 weeks, students are asked to complete a series of questionnaires again. The questionnaires assess symptoms of mental health problems (low mood, anxiety, drug and alcohol use and eating disorders), self-esteem, and personality.
Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London said the website tested students on four personality traits: neuroticism, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, and hopelessness. These traits are known to be associated with having a greater risk for common mental health disorders.
“There is a need for improved mental health interventions targeted specifically at university students, and online therapies are a good way to engage this group. Online interventions vary in their quality, so we were keen to develop an evidence-based intervention,” said lead author Dr. Peter Musiat from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the IoP at King’s College London.
“This is a novel approach because we targeted personality risk factors rather than symptoms. The intervention is designed to help students recognize and reduce unhelpful behaviors and thoughts resulting from these personality traits.”
The intervention was described to students as an opportunity to “learn more about their strengths and weaknesses,” and “how to deal with the challenges of university life.”
Based on their scores, the students were placed into a high or a low risk group and randomly given the online intervention (519 participants), or a control intervention (528). The online intervention was divided into different sections with cognitive-behavioral based exercises focusing on different traits.
Compared to controls, students who completed the PLUS intervention had lower symptoms of depression and anxiety and improved self-esteem at six weeks and after 12 weeks follow up.
The intervention was developed and tested as part of the trial and is not currently available online. The researchers are refining the software, and hope to run further trials to test its effectiveness.
Approximately one in five undergraduates suffers from symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse. Online interventions offer a flexible and appealing resource for students, but many current interventions are not successful, only target specific symptoms, or have not been developed specifically with students in mind.
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 5 May, 2014.