The University of the Western Cape (UWC) students and staff are getting Wysa – an artificial intelligence-enabled wellbeing app to build greater resilience and to proactively combat depression and anxiety among our campus community.

The introduction of the technology doesn’t happen in isolation but forms part of yet another global best practice approach for supporting mental health across the university. UWC is aiming to address student mental health that prevails countrywide, as shown in recent research, indicating 1 in 4 students self reporting suicidal ideation in the last 30 days.

Wysa is a global leader in AI-driven mental health support. Its AI-first approach enables users to improve their mental health before symptoms become severe, by using free text understanding to tailor the support to an individual’s needs and guiding them through interactive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. Wysa has been rated as the best app on Google Play and was the winner of the World Economic Forum’s Youth Mental Health Challenge in 2022.

Prof Matete Madiba is spearheading the project is UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support, Professor Matete Madiba.

“Our approach to supporting students in their mental health is broad and thorough, but we need to find the best ways to reach not just students, but staff too, to ensure they pay attention to their own needs,” she said.

“We wanted to give our people something to help them with their every day mental health that is convenient, discreet, and feels familiar. Mobile apps and texting are part of everyday life, so we are meeting students on their level with this kind of interactive digital support. Self-help needs to be interactive, engaging and even enjoyable, to encourage our young people to build their mental resilience, and help them overcome trauma.”

This digital effort is part of a broader strategy to ensure the safety of students composed of student services and wellbeing services. Specifically in the area of mental health, UWC’s strategy offers multiple level interventions. Every faculty has its own psychological support team. UWC also has a dedicated help-line in partnership with the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) that is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Wysa adds another layer to this triage process that helps overcome stigma and offers self-help support.

“We want to create a fantastic student experience that is memorable and creates lifelong memories. These include creating lecture halls that are conducive to learning, comfortable accommodation, and support for people who have left home for the first time,” said Prof Madiba.

Pranav Gupta, Vice-President of International Partnerships at Wysa, added: “We believe access to support should be available whenever students  need it. UWC is a beacon of best practice in supporting both staff and students.

Adding Wysa to its toolkit shows a real understanding of the stigma barriers that continue to exist in people’s minds. We are delighted to be working with such a truly caring team. We are hoping that this will now set a precedent for more South African universities to embrace AI-led solutions to bridge the gaps that cannot be filled by the existing resources.”

UWC’s wider wellbeing policy seeks to proactively address discoveries found in a national study of 70000 students across 17 universities in South Africa, as part of ongoing work by the World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Initiative, which found that 21% of South African students reported clinically significant symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, highlighting disturbingly high rates of trauma. Prevalence estimates were found to be 37.1% for anxiety disorders and 38.7% for disruptive behaviour disorder.

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