Why Mental Health Matters

Being a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I have seen stress that I never thought possible. Everyone is striving to do their best; to work their hardest; to attain the best grades. Being an undergraduate at Penn begets a certain pressure that goes without saying. This year, unfortunately, the pressure began to manifest itself in numerous of our peers.

The story of Madison Holleran is particularly telling. Though I did not know her personally, Madison was always described as a popular girl who was a rising star on Penn’s track team. However, things began to take a turn as the pressure of second semester began mounting. Stretches of mid-terms along with constant track practice became difficult to manage. Even while seeing a therapist, Madison’s condition continually worsened, eventually leading to her jumping off a parking garage.

Accounts like that of Madison Holleran are not unique. Penn is increasing its efforts to reach out and help students in need through CAPS, or Counseling and Psychological Services, following three recent suicides. CAPS has expanded its staff and hours of operation. Still, the goal of providing better care is far from complete.

Penn professor Peter Capelli states, “There is a lot of stigma around mental illness. There are still a lot of people who believe it is character rather than something physiological. They believe if you really wanted to fix this you could do it. I don’t think mental illness is very well understood.” According to the University of Michigan, nearly one in three college students will experience a mental health issue, but only about 30% of students will utilize mental health resources. The utilization is even lower for student-athletes, at approximately 10%. Changing the accessibility of mental health services, and providing individuals with a way to communicate progress to their clinicians — is key to reducing the stigma around treatment.

Varsa Health is aimed at addressing the question of how an individual is feeling, using patient self-report data. What is unique about this approach is the ability for a student-athlete or other individual to generate a digital timeline of characteristics like mood or anxiety. Through the software platform and wide array of surveys, clinicians can view trends in the mental health of patients with depression or anxiety, for example.

Our goal at Varsa is to make such technology available to all clinicians so they can better identify these lapses in health status and provide the right kind of intervention at the right time. The opportunity for digital health to have a meaningful impact on our lives, especially for those suffering with stigmatization, has never been greater.

Rathnam Venkat Varsa Health Summer Intern

Originally published at varsahealth.com on July 1, 2015.

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