Jan. 24, 2022

Wellness teams harness digital tools to better connect students to mental health services

UCalgary receives $100K grant to initiate chatbot program
Bell Let's Talk Day is January 26. Take part in events and activities happening all week.
Bell Let's Talk Day is Jan. 26. Take part in events and activities happening all week.

The last thing someone in distress needs is a barrier. Yet this is what many face when trying to navigate systems intended to provide resources and support — such as an overtaxed student trying to navigate a resource-rich website.

Many would agree with online navigation best practices that advise websites be accessible, findable and usable. This might sound straightforward, but design problems can inextricably unfold when trying to cater to a student population of more than 35,000 with a variety of needs and concerns.

A popular solution to online navigation problems involves the use of AI (artificial intelligence) to deliver targeted and personal virtual navigation to a user. Using natural-language processing and machine learning, “chatbots” aim to satisfy user goals more efficiently, connecting them to services in a timely fashion, without the headache of waiting on hold for assistance or the cognitive load sometimes needed to navigate websites.

Thanks in part to funding from Bell Let’s Talk, Student Wellness Services aims to implement such a tool to support students navigating campus mental health services and resources. The tool is in alignment with the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students, a set of guidelines to help post-secondary institutions support student mental health and well-being. The Campus Mental Health Strategy is leading the implementation of the national standard on our campus, currently engaging students through campus-wide consultations.

The project will be designed and iterated during the spring and summer, with the goal to have the chatbot implemented in time for the fall 2022 semester.

Project informed by experience

Wellness teams at UCalgary are always looking for ways to improve access to mental-health support. Since the launch of the Campus Mental Health Strategy in 2015, a mental health consultant role has been created to help UCalgary staff navigate mental health resources, and, in 2020, Student Wellness Services began offering single-session counselling as a way to connect students more directly and more immediately to counsellors, while continuing to offer its brief model counselling. Further co-ordination of mental health services at Student Wellness Services supports neurodiverse needs and Indigenous students.  

“With the pandemic, we’ve seen how harnessing technology in health care can benefit us all,” says Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, Campus Mental Health Strategy director and associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

This chatbot is another way we can improve supports and navigation for our students and service providers.

Technology should help, not hinder, students seeking resources, says Dr. Jennifer Thannhauser, PhD’12, associate director of counselling with Student Wellness Services and a registered psychologist. The lead for the team that applied for the funding, Thannhauser says the grant goes beyond the software itself.

“We also need financial support to properly develop and design the tool, have the ability to iterate and improve, as well as provide some staffing — so users have the ability to message with an actual person if they need,” she says.

As students are the intended primary users of the chatbot, “it’s important they be involved throughout the development and implementation process,” says Assad Ali Bik, vice-president student life for UCalgary’s Students’ Union, which will also be involved in the creation of the service.

The service will be completely anonymous; as such, the chatbot may also help reduce mental-illness stigma and increase help-seeking behaviour.

Opportunities to address equity in service-seeking

Thannhauser sees an opportunity for the chatbot to address some gaps in accessing services for equity-deserving groups.

“A lot of our international students, especially during COVID, have had problems accessing services because of differing time zones — the ease of calling our reception at Student Wellness Services we realize is accessible only to those able to call during business hours,” she says.

“The chatbot serves to augment existing supports, easing access to information about mental-health resources and services 24/7.”

The chatbot also has the ability to translate more than 100 languages, allowing students to navigate services using their preferred language. This is a potential game-changer, as there are 145 first languages spoken by UCalgary students.

Understanding culturally specific needs in the early stages of design will be crucial for success. Equity-deserving groups will be meaningfully involved in the design and testing phase, including assessing how the chatbot can support a variety of considerations, including diverse student needs and abilities.

Funding to make the work happen

The chatbot, made possible by the Bell Let's Talk Post-Secondary Fund Implementation Grant, is designed to support initiatives that improve student mental health and support the institution’s journey to align with the National Standard.

The chatbot project begins with consultation next month. The $100,000 in funding in part supports the technology, as well as contributes to the staffing costs to maintain, support and improve the program.

"Bell's commitment to student mental health is an ongoing priority especially as students continue to be impacted by the effects of the pandemic," says Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Let's Talk. "We are proud to continue our support of post-secondary institutions' efforts to expand, enhance or establish programs that support student mental health and well-being, and ultimately student success." 

On Jan. 26, UCalgary recognizes Bell Let’s Talk Day and invites our community to join the conversation on mental health, take part in workshops and training, and find resources and support if they or someone they know is suffering. Find more information here.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and the well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy.