Can Technology Save Our College Students?

Ben Locke

Source: Ben Locke

“All this personal advice is a waste of time. For every hour you spend on an individual level, you miss thousands of people.”

Consulting psychologist Ben Locke recalls being offended to hear this from a respected professor when he was applying for a doctoral program. It was as if all future counseling he would do with individuals in hospitals, group homes, community clinics, and even wilderness therapy were already pointless. How could the people responsible for the promise of doctrinal counseling be so cynical?

Despite his beard and xennial status, Locke still has the boyishness of a perpetual student. As he retells the story, he is once again devastated as he imagines thousands of students falling through the cracks and escaping the loving care of a clinician.

As he rose to become director of the Penn State Counseling Center and founded the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), a startup-inspired consortium of collegiate counseling centers that uses real-time data from counseling centers to track trends in mental health and to describe In higher education, Locke began to see a different picture.

Counseling centers were in trouble as they saw an increasing demand and an ever increasing pathology among their students. Think of more college students with a history of suicide risk, hospitalizations, and drug use combined with ever-increasing professional, academic, and family demands.

But the more buoyancy you gave the system — the more therapists you deployed in offices and on-call services, the more prevention programs you designed to catch challenges early, the more outreach you made in dormitories and classrooms — the more it held up demise.

Over nearly two decades, CCMH data shed light on a startling new reality: the children weren’t well, but it wasn’t just them. It was us and our either/or view of these issues ourselves.

Two calls to action became clear to Locke. First, we need to address college mental health as a complex public health concern at a population level, rather than just focusing on how many students you can attract to therapy. Second, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all campuses, but rather a wide range of strategies that go beyond the simple, old either-or fixations.

Based on management professors Wendy K. Smith and Marianne Lewis’ both-and-thinking—the embrace of using the paradox for more innovative outcomes—Locke began to see a way, the quick and mindless either-or thinking, prevailing throughout the college landscape.

Locke’s research found that hiring more consultants, while intuitively compelling, simply cannot solve the entire problem. Again the words of this know-it-all professor echoed in his ears. Research by the CCMH shows that each additional advisor can support an average of around 125 students per year, with perhaps as many as 300 students in the worst cases. But when you’re on a campus with 50,000 students and 20,000 need treatment, an extra advisor is a drop in the ocean. It’s always a matter of both/and – growing your clinical workforce and programs while pursuing population-level solutions in innovative and imaginative ways.

Either/or thinking just isn’t enough, and yet so much of it is hidden in plain sight. Students’ tireless energy to identify mental disorders effectively exacerbates the very imbalance students seek to resolve. They take a very personal scenario like suicide or a serious eating disorder – what statisticians affectionately call a n of 1 Rehearsal – and blow it up like everyone had the same experience and it just wasn’t true.

Another either-or trap is found in the destigmatization of mental health. Some benefit greatly from mitigating shame when they go to counseling, and others respond by inadvertently pathologizing their healthy anxiety, sadness, and grief, making their problems much worse. Locke jokingly describes this as the phenomenon “I don’t have butterflies in my stomach, I have speech phobia”. These people may have been fine for the past few years or solved their problems with ordinary support, but are now being ushered into an overwhelmed treatment system.

Recently, either-or thinking has emerged in the debate about whether and to what extent student counseling should be outsourced. Many well-intentioned college counselors are concerned that this will weaken and undermine the college’s mental health, while devaluing the unique college counseling community itself.

Locke’s latest project attempts to address all of these valid concerns. Using the both-and-thinking that has shaped his career as a researcher, psychologist, and educator, he answers hard-hitting questions: Is there a way to break the zero-sum game of too few advisors and too many students? Can you simultaneously make a dent at the population level while serving the most vulnerable young adults? Is it possible to harness the scale and benefits of technology while protecting against its toxic side effects?

Locke found this in an anonymous online community available to more than 3 million students at over 350 institutions. Peers have 24/7 access to support, advice and connection while being carefully monitored and protected by a background of psychiatrists.

It’s the best of both worlds, a place where members can access the best benefits of group and individual therapy—hope, perspective, empathy, affirmation, problem-solving skills, altruism, and group membership—and better yet, from the most qualified and invested people of all: their colleagues. Trained counselors, nurses and psychiatrists are on call 24/7 when people need them, but mostly work in the background, carefully shaping the community and keeping a close eye on making sure everyone benefits from the community and that everyone’s needs are met Individuals are visibly perceived.

Do you see the both-and-operate here?

Instead of just focusing on how few advisors you have, why not switch it up and encourage your students to be supportive and supportive of one another while also expanding your advisory capacity? Concerned about making sure that the always-online digital generation is being securely monitored by experts in the field? Create a strategically designed global group of clinicians to shape, support, monitor and intervene when needed to ensure the self-sustaining community thrives. Concerned about trolling and an addictive echo chamber of yes-men? Build a community of individuals invested and moved by the hopeful possibility of real help and connection, then use technology to achieve that goal at scale.

Like any good paradox, this professor was both right and wrong, and Locke found creative ways to figure out how. The challenge of working with the vast scale and changes facing higher education counseling is to fuse conventional truths with unconventional applications, to use new technologies alongside traditional modalities, and to have the willingness and forethought to be wrong and to be guided by the data are right.

Too often, when many of us consider the problems colleges face these days, we focus on mere arithmetic and a zero-sum game that we inevitably lose, and lose hard. Using both-and thinking allows us to see the calculus that lies hidden in this new game we are playing and see it for what it is: not insurmountable problems, but achievable opportunities, that we can continue to build upon if we are self-reflective, savvy, and strategic.


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