onlineUsing online interventions targeted at personality traits could help to improve the mental health of university students, new research has claimed.

Scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London tested an online intervention, which targets personality traits rather than symptoms, and found it reduced indicators of depression and anxiety and improved self-esteem.

The transition from school to higher education involves many lifestyle changes, and is associated with an increase in mental ill health, which can disrupt students’ education and emotional development. About 1 in 5 undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders or substance misuse.

Rather than targeting individual symptoms, researchers at King’s developed an intervention designed to target underlying personality risk factors. The online resource ‘PLUS’ (Personality and Living of University Students) was described to students as an opportunity to ‘learn more about their strengths and weaknesses’, and ‘how to deal with the challenges of university life’.

Students were assessed according to four personality traits known to be associated with increased risk of common mental health disorders: neuroticism, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions and hopelessness. They were then grouped according to whether they were high or low risk and randomly allocated the online intervention (519 participants), or a control intervention (528). The online intervention was divided into modules with text-based cognitive-behaviour based exercises focusing on different traits. 

Compared to controls, students who completed the online intervention had reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved self-esteem at 6 weeks and after 12 weeks follow up. The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dr Peter Musiat, from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the IoP at King’s and lead author of the paper, said: “There is a need for improved mental health interventions targeted specifically at university students, and online therapies are a good way to engage this group. Online interventions vary in their quality, so we were keen to develop an evidence-based intervention. This is a novel approach because we targeted personality risk factors rather than symptoms. The intervention is designed to help students recognise and reduce unhelpful behaviours and thoughts resulting from these personality traits.”

The intervention was designed and delivered as part of the trial only and is not available online. The researchers are refining the software, and hope to run further trials to test its effectiveness.

Reference: Musiat, P et al (2014) Targeted prevention of common mental health disorders in university students: randomised controlled trial of a trans-diagnostic trait-focused web-based intervention. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093621