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Why the Way Colleges Track Student Mental Health Is Problematic

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

It was July 2004, and I had just gone on medical leave from my first college. The doorbell sounded; it was a registered letter from the school. Before I would be allowed to return, I needed to divulge all of my mental health diagnoses, surrender a list of every medication I was taking and sign a release that would allow six separate administrators in student and residence life to discuss my mental health with one another. In other words, due to my mental health disabilities, I had to relinquish my right to privacy. Given that my hand was being forced, I decided to transfer to a school where my medical confidentiality would be taken seriously.

According to the Washington Post, in recent years, universities have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to track students. At the University of Florida, for instance, when the school felt it could never keep up with the demand for services, the health and wellness center created an app to track students’ mental health. As a result, “TAO Connect” was developed, with the result being that at over 150 colleges and universities, students are encouraged to download the app. Another wellness application, “YOU at College,” which was developed by Joe Conrad, CEO at Grit Digital Health, is used on 55 college campuses with 44,000 users.

While helping students with their mental health is an admirable goal, undercutting the right to privacy sets a dangerous precedent. Apps’ terms of service are often in legalese and could change at any time. According to Lori Andrews, who was interviewed for the Post article, “By agreeing to use those platforms, you were essentially relinquishing your privacy rights.” Andrews is the director of Chicago-Kent’s Institute of Technology’s Institute for Science, Law and Technology, and is a world-renowned expert on the topic. As she further elucidated, “HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) does not apply to user-generated data from the platforms.” In other words, anyone who takes the “reality checks,” self-assessments or quizzes on these platforms has no guarantee the information will be confidential or that it will be used for benign purposes.

In the name of efficiently addressing mental health on campus, in many cases, apps have supplanted face-to-face contact at health centers, and information can be used in ways deleterious to students. As Andrews explained, “There can be significant real-life consequences.” When the information harvested from the apps is sold to other parties, insurance companies, employees and advertisers all employ this information for purposes beyond the scope of actually helping students. “The health advantages just don’t outweigh the privacy risks,” Andrews concluded.

According to the Post, “A student suffering from an eating disorder may be presented an ad for laxatives, or, if a student is flagged as a suicide risk or likely to suffer from severe depression, he or she may be denied a job or security clearance.” That privacy and due process are being ignored sets a scary precedent, especially when it comes to job placement; students need all the work experience they can get to be successful in their future lives, and they shouldn’t be discriminated against due to mental health disabilities.

In a world where the cost of going to college is exorbitant and where the demand for collegiate mental health care is rising, I can only wonder why more money is not allocated to actual, face-to-face services. According to the 2018 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 41.9% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, 63.4% experienced overwhelming anxiety and 12.1% of students had seriously considered suicide at some time within the previous 12 months. It is clear that there is a mental health crisis on campus, and adequate treatment will involve more than merely tracking students and mining data.

If young adults are given an app where their results won’t be confidential, then how many who could use support will never pursue getting services at all? How many will self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco and other substances? How many will think they are being helped, when they are only being tracked for liability concerns? As teen suicides are on the rise, wouldn’t it be far better to have human contact in the form of readily-available psychiatrists and psychologists that one may go to confidentially? Since students’ mental health in school will set the tone for their adulthood, and many conditions manifest themselves in late adolescence, colleges must support attendees’ mental health in both a lawful and confidential manner.

Getty Images photo via Liderina.

Originally published: January 6, 2020
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