EXCLUSIVE: University set to introduce online mental health platform to students

(Courtesy Sander van der Wel/Creative Commons)

(Courtesy Sander van der Wel/Creative Commons)

Ryerson students will soon have access to an online therapy tool to better manage their mental health.

The program is called WellTrack.

WellTrack is meant to help users through computerized cognitive behavioural therapy. The platform tracks moods through diary entries and provides personalized therapy through an activity scheduler or relaxation exercises.

“You log in and use it, and it provides you with some more information and then guides you and gives you homework to do,” said Darren Piercey, founder of WellTrack. “We help students to do their homework using tools available within the software package.”

(Courtesy of WellTrack)

(Courtesy of WellTrack)

After the app received recommendations from other universities, Gaya Arasaratnam, acting director of strategic projects for student health and wellness, said Ryerson decided to pursue it. “The university was interested in exploring new methods for therapy for students,” she said. Specifically, Ryerson students wanted to know about self-care options.

Piercey, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick, had ample research demonstrating that digital tools like WellTrack can be useful, but he needed a way to make such therapy more accessible. His solution was to create WellTrack and make it a service that both universities and businesses pay for so that students and employees can benefit.

“I wanted to help as many people as possible and really change the way mental health care is being delivered to the population,” he said.

This is the first time Ryerson has pursued a tool like this. According to John Austin, executive director of student affairs at Ryerson, WellTrack will be available to anyone with a Ryerson student number.

Austin explained that WellTrack is a part of  a stepped-care system the university is developing to address mental health.

“We are constantly trying to give resources…and reminders (to students) that they need to remember it’s more than just reaching that crisis point,” he said. “It’s about whole health.”

Technological solutions are important to Austin. He says that tools such as apps give students an invested relationship with their device in which students’ needs are directly addressed by customizable algorithms.

Darren Piercey, founder of WellTrack. (Courtesy of Darren Piercey)

Darren Piercey, founder of WellTrack. (Courtesy of Darren Piercey)

“We want to put whole solutions in (students’) pockets,” he said. “It gives them the confidence to own it.”

Arasaratnam points out that another crucial aspect of moving towards technology is the immediacy and availability. If a student needs help at 10 p.m., they can get it instantly with WellTrack.

“It’s very simple, but it’s powerful, because now students can track throughout the day all of the things that they do and how they feel,” Piercey said.

However, when it comes to apps, privacy and safety are a concern due to the personal nature of the data collected.

Both Austin and Arasaratnam said  that they are well aware of this and are working closely with Ryerson’s information and privacy officer, Heather Driscoll. Users log in anonymously and can choose whether or not to share their information with a clinician.

WellTrack has been well received at other universities, including the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).

Peter Cornish, associate professor and director of MUN’s counselling centre, said that WellTrack is one part of the MUN’s stepped-care system for well-being.

“Universities are good places to experiment and test out systems,” he said. “A one-off campaign is not the answer. What we really need is a strategy that helps us organize what we’re doing thoughtfully and a stepped care model.”

Plus, adding in a little bit of fun through the use of an app fights stigma. “We can have fun talking about this and don’t have to cringe, be secret or be overly sensitive,” Cornish said.  

Arasaratnam did not list a price, but said the software is cost-effective. Access will begin during the 2016-2017 school year.

 

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