In this article, we explore how assistive technology can be useful to students who are experiencing challenges with their mental health that impact negatively on their learning experience.
The Office of National Statistics published some experimental statistics in a report entitled “Coronavirus and first year higher education students, England: 4 October to 11 October 2021” and shared the following statement:
“When asked about how they felt over the previous two weeks, 37% of first year students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 39% showed signs of likely having some form of anxiety.”
Source – ONS
For many, it will come as no surprise that the incidence of depression and anxiety across the UK population, pre-pandemic, will be fairly significant and that the student population will likely have seen a higher incidence of depression and anxiety during the pandemic and in this current period which is affected by the cost of living crisis. According to Symplicity, the general population here in the UK sees incidence of depression between the ages of 16-29 as about 22%.
The student body therefore is experiencing a higher incidence of depression than the general population.
Depending upon the diagnosis of depression a student could be eligible for support if their diagnosis meets the criteria of disability by the UK Government:
Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010
“You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.”
For a student, the effects of depression and anxiety could make them eligible for support from the Disabled Students’ Allowance, if depression has a mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on their ability to carry out the normal activities of being a student.
What are the signs of depression that could affect the cognitive ability of students to study?
Signs of clinical depression
According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs of clinical depression include:
Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies, or sports
Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
In reading the above list, it is evident that the impact of poor mental health has a direct impact on cognitive ability.
Many students will experience fatigue, stress, and anxiety and their self-esteem will fluctuate but when there is a clinical mental health issue then the ability to focus is impaired and distractability increased at a level that significantly impacts on cognitive ability and learning outcomes.
There are many ways of treating and managing clinical mental health issues that we can’t possibly provide advice on here at Aventido, but we can provide advice on how Assistive Technology can help a student in this position to have a better, more rewarding learning experience.
How does Assistive Technology help students who are experiencing cognitive difficulties related to the impact of poor mental health?
Before this question gets answered it is important to state that every student has their own specific set of needs related to learning. There is no ‘one solution’ with technology that meets everyone’s needs in the same way. This is why, when a student applies for Disabled Student’s Allowance support they take part in a needs assessment so that the most appropriate study skills strategy is developed and the most appropriate assistive technology provided.
The most common technology that students use to study with is a screen of some sort, be that a smartphone, tablet, or PC. Studying will require the ability to read the text as well as write text. Whilst this is obvious, depending upon the needs of the student, reading and writing whilst staring at a screen for significant lengths of time can be problematic requiring high levels of concentration. The more tired a student feels the more likely they are going to be prone to making spelling and grammar mistakes when writing as well as struggle with comprehension when reading.
Assistive technology can alleviate some of these challenges.
Text To Speech Technology.
For example, text-to-speech technology such as TextAid can reduce the requirement for staring at a screen to read lengthy texts, allowing the user to listen to the text being read out to them. It means that they can move about, and be more comfortable when accessing text. It can mean that they can listen whilst taking notes without having to switch their view between screen and notes which can be tiring. Being able to write notes (or doodle) whilst listening to text can help with comprehension too. If our eyes feel tired then often the rest of the body can feel tired, so reducing the need to stare at the screen can help a lot.
When writing text in apps such as Microsoft Word, feelings of fatigue and anxiety can be made worse with on-screen distractions such as the spell check’s squiggly red lines. They cause the student to stop and consider a spelling and thus are then required to make a choice on the amendment. Whilst this may not sound like a lot, for some this can be a real issue in terms of hampering creative flow. It takes the focus away from writing about ideas to worrying about making mistakes and this can then make the student less creative and the writing experience less enjoyable. Apps such as SpellAssist, work with the student in real-time to auto-correct spelling and grammar, leaving the student the headspace to explore the learning topics and communicate their learning.
If using a keyboard is uncomfortable then the use of apps such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking can be helpful in helping the student to dictate what they want to write. Again this takes away the need to stare at a screen or be ‘chained’ to a desk in order to be able to write. The software allows the user to use their voice as their way of putting text together. Literally, with a wireless headset, the student can walk around a room whilst dictating their essay without having to worry about spelling and grammar as they can always do an edit at a later stage.
In this article, we have shared three common types of assistive technology that are useful for students who struggle with their mental health and studying. There are many other technologies that are useful and can make a difference and so it is important to book a needs assessment with an assessor who can give useful advice and recommendations for the unique needs of the student being assessed.