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These young Americans created apps to help address mental health crisis among peers

PeopleImages/iStockBy DANA ALKHOURI, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — College campuses have seen an influx of students battling mental health disorders since the pandemic began, with about 80% saying in a Healthy Minds survey that COVID-19 had negatively affected them.

It’s a problem few schools, if any, were equipped to handle.

Founder and CEO of Grit Digital Health and the YOU at College well-being platform Joe Conrad recognizes the importance of using digital platforms to make mental health resources more accessible.

“There definitely is a mental health crisis; campuses can’t keep up with the demand of their students,” Conrad told ABC News. “I think innovation and digital support, has to be part of the solution.”

In 2016, Conrad was approached by Colorado State University after school officials saw an increase in on-campus suicides. Using a student-centered design process, Colorado State and Grit Digital Health partnered to build prototypes and asked students for feedback, which led to the creation of YOU at College.

“There are three parts to the platform — succeed, thrive and matter — but most of the resources being accessed are in ‘thrive,’ for mental and behavioral health,” Conrad explained.

Plans to launch the app along West Coast colleges during the early stages of the pandemic didn’t come to fruition because of California’s lockdown. But the students who did get to try YOU at College responded positively, Conrad said.

“The feedback was great — we got 50% of the student population at Long Beach,” Conrad added. “That’s 17,000 students who created accounts on the new platform within the first eight weeks of that launch.”

The personalized platforms are tailored for each unique campus and the resources they can offer.

“We really put students at the center of the experience and designed it just for them,” he said. “We published a lot of COVID content — it ranged from mental health to physical distancing, loneliness and remote learning.”

YOU at College is at 160 campuses around the country, and NOD, another offering from Grit Digital Health recently developed to help combat loneliness and build connections on campuses, is at about 10 campuses. The two apps can be used with each other or on their own.

‘I saw that there was a need’

Being college students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in March and April of 2020, Alice Kim, Meagan Jenkins and Tyler Huang noticed a huge gap in the communication between students and the kind of counseling services that were being offered.

“Everything was unprecedented, and no one really knew how the isolation would affect us,” Kim told ABC News. “I saw that there was a need for more mental health support.”

Over the summer, the students said they asked themselves how they could help.

“I could sense that a lot of students were struggling with quarantine and isolation. It was taking a huge toll on their mental health,” Kim added.

Since all three of them are part of the Student Counseling Services Student Advisory Board, they reached out to the Student Counseling Services Director Dr. Angela Stowe. Their conversations led the development of the B Well app.

“Numerous focus group discussions across campus occurred, to get input about features students wanted, and that is what informed the features that are now part of the app,” Stowe told ABC News. “There are future developments already in progress, including enhancing notifications and providing in-app access to relaxation video and audio exercises, yoga and mindfulness exercises.”

B Well is now available to all UAB students and faculty.

“Taking the time to take care of yourself is really important,” Jenkins said. “And so that’s what I mostly use the app for.”

‘I reached out’

Dartmouth graduate Sanat Mohapatra took a different approach.

“I noticed that a lot of students that used anonymous forums at Dartmouth weren’t really interested in traditional mental health resources. I reached out to a lot of them to see if I could help them in any way,” Mohapatra told ABC News.

Mohapatra noticed the popularity of Yik Yak on campus during his freshman year. When the anonymous messaging app shut down, he saw the need for another and began to build Unmasked, tailoring it toward mental health.

“Over the years at Dartmouth, I saw that a lot of students were struggling with mental health issues, but didn’t talk openly about their struggles just out of fear of judgment or discomfort,” he said.

Unmasked allows students to talk freely and serves as a gateway for them to seek professional mental health services.

“This app is created by students for students,” Mira Ram, a Dartmouth student studying computer science, told ABC News. Ram leads the app’s design team. “I think the value is that we’re creating intimate communities where someone that you pass by on the walk to class could also be really helping you on this platform, but you might not know each other at all.”

Unmasked is now at 45 college campuses, with plans to expand it to more, Mohapatra said. Each forum at each school is moderated by students who apply to become moderators. They’re responsible for reading through the message board and looking for malicious content or any content that violates community guidelines.

“They make sure that the app remains a safe space for students to feel comfortable being vulnerable about their mental health issues and their struggles,” Mohapatra said. “They want to take an active role in improving their campus.”

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