Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Access to mental health support is primarily in-person. However, with today’s changing tide with the rise of online solutions, why hasn’t the student population embraced initiatives towards online mental support?

Teens don’t necessarily see the stigma that the older generation faces with mental illness, but often resist in-person support. As this demographic spends more time on their mobile device, psychologists and psychiatrists have seen an influx of their patients turn to the web.

According to Mike Likier, Ph.D., ACT, Psychologist, Diplomate, Academy of Cognitive Therapy, “In my interactions with college students, I’ve heard many say, ‘I don’t want to be seen walking up those steps to the counseling center,’ out of fear of being judged. As far as we’ve come with reducing stigma, we’re not there yet. Online support groups could serve as a bridge to get those folks to the help they need, or at least provide a forum for a deeper level of conversation that may not be available with their current peer group.”

As someone who has lost close friends to mental illness, I have dedicated myself to provide support. My close family friend Louis passed away after struggling for three years with schizoaffective disorder / bipolar type one. The onset of Louis’ psychosis occurred when he was 19, first hospitalized in October 2014. From childhood through high school, Louis was happy, athletic, musically gifted, made friends easily, and achieved outstanding academic success. He was subsequently hospitalized three more times for durations of several weeks to months.

In March of 2017, Louis once again rejected therapy due to medication side effects along with non-acceptance of his condition, making it nearly impossible to manage. Two months later, in the throes of psychosis, he did not understand the danger posed by the nearby river. It is presumed that he perished on June 4, 2017.

In his honor, I took on the challenge to raise $9,500 through crowdfunding. With all of the amazing support we raised $9,640 in just over two weeks. The proceeds went to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and specifically will be used to fund the NAMI Basics Program. NAMI Basics is a free, six-week education program for parents and family caregivers of children and teens who are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness or who have already been diagnosed.

Following the campaign, and with Mental Health Awareness Month approaching, I set out to raise $30,000 in 30 days with Louis’ dad, Fred, who was now volunteering for his local NAMI chapter, NAMI El Dorado. The goal was to raise this amount for El Dorado’s Family to Family Program, which would support 600 family members with a loved one with mental illness. In three weeks, Fred, myself, and the Executive Director of NAMI El Dorado, Jeanne Nelson, surpassed our goal and hit $32,000.

After reaching crowdfunding success I wanted to do more. I teamed up with one of my closest friends, David Markovich, who has an expertise in online community building, growing his digital marketing community Online Geniuses to over 15,000 members and running events in over 23 countries. We have now built an online community around mental health called 18percent.org. At any given moment, 18 percent of the United States population suffers from some mental illness.

18percent is a free mental health online community based off Slack, where one can receive peer-to-peer support. The community offers free 24/7 support in a moderated environment with many channels that cover various mental health issues. 18percent is an official partner of the Crisis Text Line and National Eating Disorders Association. The mental health community has been featured in NowThis, The Washington Post, and FOX. Since 18percent launched eight months, the community has had 340,000 messages sent on the platform. In order for students to feel comfortable, all emails are hidden on the platform, protecting one’s anonymity.

18percent has a team of moderators who are volunteers. Moderators as well as other members oversee conversation. They will frequently engage the member who is distressed. Many of the members will share resources such as popular apps, articles, and videos to encourage one another.

18percent has a Code of Conduct that all members must follow. In short, members must be respectful and are not allowed to cyber bully. 18percent also has introduced automation to pick up many of the self-harm related keywords. The bot will then provide an action plan as well as resources such as the Crisis Text Line to get additional support.

One of the moderators, Robyn says that 18percent is valuable on multiple levels. “First and foremost, it enables people who are suffering to connect and the connection is essential for coping and recovery. Hearing from others who know what it’s like can make one feel less isolated. It allows people to help each other and feel like they have a purpose beyond their mental health issue. Just this weekend I was private messaging with someone from the eating disorder channel that I moderate. This girl is SUFFERING and simultaneously supporting others on various channels. How powerful to be able to be able to give support AND receive support? Through 18percent I see people offering new coping strategies, provide information and education and allow people a safe place to ‘talk.’ Ultimately, 18percent is providing a premium service free of charge that heals and empowers.”

To date, students at over 30 schools are using 18percent. A few of the schools include:

  • University of Alabama
  • University of Connecticut
  • Cornell University
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Michigan
  • New York University
  • Northeastern University
  • Stanford University
  • Syracuse University

Our hope is that more students will learn and engage in online digital health solutions to support them in their lives.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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