Meet Claudette Pretorius, who is investigating how young people access mental health services online

Submitted on Monday, 22/06/2020
Meet the former student counsellor who has turned to data science to investigate how young people seek mental health support online


Claudette Pretorius is currently completing a PhD in Computer Science at University College Dublin as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow. She completed a Masters in Counselling Psychology through the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and worked as a counselling psychologist and student counsellor for a number of years before deciding to pursue a PhD. She also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Monitoring and Evaluation from the University of Stellenbosch and completed her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology at the University of Cape Town.

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. Whilst working as a student counsellor, our university and many universities across South Africa were dealing with student protests and 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 the Facebook page 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 makes 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.