More than 100 people gathered inside Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Tuesday afternoon to explore the benefits of digital technologies in helping depression on college campuses nationwide.

This discussion is just one of many events taking place during The Depression on College Campuses Conference held March 13 through 14. The conference, which has been held annually for 16 years, includes a series of workshops, panel discussions and sessions that pertain to mental health awareness. These sessions include information on how to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ students, how to promote wellness on campus and how to aid international student mental health. There is a multitude of sessions specific to every kind of individual and demographic.

A campus task force last year found 96 percent of student respondents feel mental health should be accommodated on a college campus, but 74 percent do not feel comfortable addressing their concerns with faculty.

Tom Insel, co-founder and president of Mindstrong Health, kicked off the two-day conference. Insel, a neuroscientist, also served as the director of the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years.

Insel emphasized how prevalent depression is on college campuses, especially within the larger microcosm of ever-evolving university life.

“We are constantly trying to figure out what kind of world we’re living in,” he said.  “Our ever-changing political, economic, scientific and cultural society has an influence on the kind of problem we’re trying to solve. How do you address depression? Or school violence? Students these days are claiming to be from the ‘school shooting generation.’ New tariffs may produce profounding change within economic society. Basically, there is a changing ecosystem of campus life.”

14 months ago, the World Health Organization declared the number one cause of disability for medical illness in the world is clinical depression. Moreover, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association about a third of college students have experienced depression within the past year and had difficulty functioning because of it.

“Students within the 21st century come to college with more issues,” Insel said. “About 30 percent of kids have been medicated since middle school. It seems that students are more willing to seek help, to talk about issues, and have seemed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.”

However, Insel warned though we have progressed by means of talking about mental health, we may have progressed at such a fast rate we cannot seem to combat mental health through services at quite the same pace.

“But while all of this is changing, supply has not kept up with demand,” he said. “Only one-half of counseling centers have any source of accreditation, and only 13 percent have a full-time person available for students. Thirty-one percent of campuses essentially have no services whatsoever.”

Many believe the problem to be an increasing disconnection within society due to an increased connectivity through social media and technology. College students are the “iGen,” the first generation to grow up on smartphones. Adolescents have lower rates of teen pregnancy and auto-accidents. However, they also have lower rates of possession of driver’s licenses. All we need to do if we want to connect to our peers is just merely sit in our bedroom.

“It most certainly affects how people interact face to face,” Insel said. “Kids no longer know how to interact; the shock they have when they leave home and end up in the dormitory environment or they actually have to live with somebody who is not just an avatar or a virtual friend.”

But, Insel suggested, is the problem the solution?

“Engagement is 70 percent of the battle, getting people involved in some sort of treatment setting,” he said. “But the treatment setting are largely built for us and not the people we want to serve. Built by a generation obsessed with brick and mortar and scheduling — a world that doesn’t fit with students today. In a way, we’re sort of the shopping mall generation, not the Amazon generation. We’ve got to rethink treatment strategies.”

LSA freshman Ayesha Kothari agreed with Insel in that the tedious nature of mental health treatment — especially on campus — further hurts students with mental health needs.  

“Going to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) to make an initial consultation appointment and then waiting a week or more to actually get an appointment isn’t as immediate and accessible as it could be,” Kothari said. “Having to go in twice deters a lot of people with depression, as many suffering do not want to do anything or stay in bed for long periods of time.”

Thus, Insel proposed different forms of technological innovation that could potentially change the means in which students receive mental health counseling.

“The first method is phenotyping, measuring mood, cognition and behavior,” Insel said. “By studying various signals from a phone we can deduct speech that includes words involving sadness and elation. We can notice human computer interaction; how people address the keyboard, specific patterns how we scroll and type, how we use social media posts and what terms we search.”

“It can get creepy,” Insel said. “But a huge amount of our lives are captured on this. As people become depressed, manic, psychotic, you can predict how much is caught on this digital stuff.”

Another type of therapy that Insel mentions is the idea of mobile interventions.

“We wonder what would interventions look like in a world where we look at services very differently,” he said. “Online social bots can engage as a therapist might. Virtual reality has the potential for treating phobias and avoidant behaviors. Text crisis apps can even determine if someone is in need of immediate help through the use of their emojis.”

LSA senior Clarrise Ng said she believes the idea of a more modern type of therapy is a great idea that could perhaps be implemented with the University’s mental health service, CAPS.

“I think that what Tom said was really important especially in the way in which we deliver mental health services,” Ng said. “Mental health services used to only be done by scheduling and brick and mortar, and personally as a student going to student services on campus, I think that is really an issue. This is something we need to think about; the solutions he’s proposing are feasible and can be worked with. Overall, I think it necessary to come from both ends; both technological innovation and the administration should be supportive of student mental health.”

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