40% of students don’t get assistance for their mental health issues. Can chatbots help?

Mental Health Help for Students

September 16, 2019

According to collegestats.org, 30% of students report they have problems with their school work due to mental health issues, 50% rate their mental health as below average or poor, and 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities as a student.

Thanks to studies and growing media coverage, mental health awareness continues to increase and stigmas seem more absent in mental health conversation. As a result, college staff are more aware of the mental health barriers that block students from persisting through their higher education experience, allowing for expansion in the number of resources and assistance for students in need.

But what if students don’t know about this on-campus support? What if they’re too afraid of being judged to reach out to a counselor? Afterall, 40% of students who struggle with their mental health fail to seek help.

Mental Health Help for Students

Enter chatbot technology. Forward-thinking colleges and universities use text-messaging chatbots to remind students about helpful resources, schedule appointments with students that need support, and point students in the right direction when they mention a sensitive topic by alerting staff immediately.

With a chatbot on their team, university staff can understand the most common problems their students face and lead them to the right resources to get the help they need. Chatbots can help students identify useful services that ultimately allow them to lead more fulfilling lives. But how does it all work, and why would a student feel more comfortable talking to a robot over a human being?

What is a sensitive topic?

First, let’s identify what we mean by “sensitive topic.” Sensitive topics have the ability to cover a wide range of terms and phrases, and it’s largely up to college staff to determine which subject matters they’d like to identify as “sensitive.” Common sensitive topics include mental health, active shooter, and other crises-level mentions that need to be escalated and addressed immediately.

When a student sends a text about a sensitive topic to the chatbot, the chatbot immediately flags the message for review by a staff member. Its artificial intelligence permits the chatbot to recognize an infinite amount of phrases and words that may be considered sensitive, and puts them in the hands of university staff in less than five seconds. By prioritizing these urgent messages, staff not only point students in the right direction, but also help these students as quickly as possible.

How it works

So what does this process look like? Once staff have identified the topics they’d like to include as sensitive, it only takes a student to mention a sensitive topic to initiate the answer process.

Let’s say the student texts the chatbot and says something like, “I feel depressed.” Because this phrase is flagged in the chatbot’s knowledge base as sensitive, the chatbot immediately recognizes that, and alerts relevant staff members.

When the chatbot notifies university staff, it also simultaneously sends the student an appropriate automatic reply to let the student know their message was received. In response to an “I feel depressed” message, the chatbot has the potential to send something like, “Please reach out to the counseling department at (555) 555-5555. If you are considering harmful actions, please call (777) 777-7777 or text 888888.” This message is just one example of what the chatbot’s answer can be, but staff have the power to create any answer they want with information specific to their institution.

When a staff member receives the sensitive topic alert, they can reply directly to the student’s message. This gives staff the ability to intervene further and provide additional resources or comments the student may find helpful. Staff may find that the chatbot handles sensitive topic situations all on its own— maybe the chatbot’s automatic reply was sufficient, or maybe the student continued with follow-up questions, all answered accurately by the chatbot. Sensitive topics come with a case-by-case basis and are extremely easy to manage with the help of artificial intelligence that can answer messages all week, 24/7.

Sensitive Topics Student Chat


The obvious impacts are felt directly by the student. When colleges and universities adopt a chatbot, they give their students the ability to access information and resources, not only in regard to sensitive topics, but also general texts about academics, housing, and everything in between.

Chatbots also act as confidants. Many students choose to contact their college’s chatbot over a real-life staff member because of the shame or embarrassment they feel when discussing certain sensitive topics.

In a Wayne State University case study about their chatbot “W the Warrior” and its positive impacts, Dawn Medley, Wayne State’s AVP for Enrollment Management, believes that the chatbot adds humility to the higher education space by offering a judgement-free zone to students.

“Students don’t feel judged or feel that they’re imposters.”

Dawn Medley, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, Wayne State University

Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist at Stanford University, reaffirms Medley’s thoughts. In a New York Times article, Darcy notes that “Woebot,” a chatbot she created to help people cope with their depression, sees high engagement rates because its users don’t feel the pressure of talking about a sensitive topic with a real person. 

In addition to those impacts felt by students, staff can also realize successes from the information gathered by sensitive topic data. This data reveals key statistics that can help staff improve resources available to students and even cross-collaboration between university departments.

As the chatbot responds to sensitive topic messages, its system records students’ questions, presenting staff with data that speaks to the types of resources students commonly look for, student needs that may not be met, and even how the students feel in general. Using this data, staff can improve on-campus initiatives, create new, meaningful resources backed by numbers, and ultimately help their students to and through college.

Because chatbot technology touches every part of the university system, departments are required to work together to make the student experience as seamless as possible. Though your chatbot might be focused on retention or enrollment goals specifically, the student can still ask questions that concern student health, athletics, or housing departments, allowing for better communication to develop between all involved teams. Adding a chatbot to the group helps staff stay well-informed and provides the opportunity to fine-tune processes that can help students in danger, distress, or everyday situations.

Get started

40% of college students that have a mental health issue don’t seek the help they need. Maybe it’s because these students don’t know about the resources available to them, or maybe it’s because they feel embarrassed. Chatbots can be the change that helps students get the assistance they deserve.

Have questions about how a chatbot works with your established university alert system? Want to see how chatbots can help with your college’s retention and enrollment goals in addition to handling students’ sensitive questions? Schedule a demonstration with our team to discuss the possibility of an artificially intelligent chatbot at your institution.

Share on social

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe for free

Sign up to receive Mainstay's latest insights on engagement trends and Behavioral Intelligence — right in your inbox.

Get a guided tour of Mainstay’s Engagement Platform

Mainstay’s Engagement Platform uses Behavioral Intelligence to help schools and businesses build meaningful relationships, optimize insights, and drive action.

Sign up for your personalized demo to find out how Mainstay makes it easy to spark conversations with your students or employees and guide them toward positive results.


Instant support — anytime, anywhere

Mainstay’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots make it easy to engage with students and employees on the channels they prefer to use:

SMS text messaging

Live chat

Web chat

Social media

Let's talk