One researcher aims to find how students access mental health services online

20 May 2020

Image: Lorenzo Hill Photography

PhD student Claudette Pretorius of UCD is working to develop guidelines to help young people access mental health services online.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Claudette Pretorius went on to do a master’s in counselling psychology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Following this, she spent a number of years working as a counselling psychologist and a student counsellor, and completed a postgraduate diploma in monitoring and evaluation from Stellenbosch University.

She is now completing her PhD in computer science at University College Dublin (UCD) and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow.

‘Our research is important because the goal is to help young people to access the type of help they need when they need it’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s behaviour and the resilience they show when faced by difficult situations.

While working as a student counsellor, our university and many universities across South Africa were dealing with student protests. As a result, many of the universities shut down, including student support services such as student counselling.

We had a few students reach out to us through email and Facebook, and this led me to wonder how many students were using the internet and technology to find mental health support they needed. Very soon after this, I saw the advertisement for my PhD position and it fit exactly with my interest area.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My PhD research looks at young people’s online help-seeking behaviour. How do they use technology and the internet to find information and help they’re looking for with regards to their mental health?

This is important because it’s been found that a positive help-seeking experience is likely to lead future help-seeking and improved health outcomes. We’ve conducted a number of studies in this area using surveys, co-design and user studies.

What we’ve found is that the help-seeking process is an extremely personal one and each young person has their own set of needs. In order to cater for this wide range of needs, we have developed a set of design guidelines that can be applied to online mental health resources to improve the overall help-seeking experience.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The ecosystem of online mental health resources that exist is diverse and rapidly growing. These resources are of variable quality and credibility. Although the internet and technology make mental health resources more accessible to the general public, the right resources are not always easy to find.

Engagement with the right mental health resources has the potential to improve a young person’s mental health literacy as well as influence their future help-seeking. Our research is important because ultimately the goal is to help young people to access the type of help they need when they need it.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Our findings and design guidelines could be helpful to health systems or mental health service providers.

It can be used to inform a tool that would make finding mental health resources easier and more effective, but could also be used when designing their online content.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Mental health is still a very stigmatised topic for some people and in some cases I think it may keep some young people from participating in this kind of research.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

That Google is good enough.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I am interested in the role trust and credibility play in the help-seeking process, especially online, and how it influences beliefs about help-seeking and services.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.