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Krista Moellers was in fourth grade when her symptoms began. She didn't have a name for it back then, but it's clear now that her spiral into severe depression began many years before her sophomore year of high school, when she tried to kill herself.
Moellers's depression was initially sparked by bullying at school. But even after the bullying stopped, what she describes as "dark moods" remained. She didn't feel comfortable talking about how she felt, and she withdrew from her friends and family. "I felt like I was the only one feeling this way," she told VICE.
Between 13 and 20 percent of people under 18 in the United States have a mental illness. Only about a third of teens get counseling, and unlike adults, who generally refer themselves to therapy (whether the digital kind or the in-person kind), the vast majority of adolescents come in for treatment at the urging of their parents—and engaging them is a challenge.
It was with this situation in mind that former video producer Jennifer Oko teamed up with five psychologists and psychiatrists to create psych.E, an app that serves as a social network and activity tracker for teens with mental health problems. It's currently in beta testing and is set to launch in the fall.
Oko's interest in teen mental health came about when she went looking for resources for a teenager she's close to who was struggling with suicidal thoughts. Surprised by how limited the mental health apps were for teenagers, and certain that the route to most teens' hearts and psyches was through their phones, Oko recruited David Grodberg, medical director at Yale's Child Study Center Outpatient Services, plus a team of under-18 advisors, to design a solution.
Psych.E aims to improve upon the small collection of mental-health apps for teens already out there. Mood 24/7 allows users to track their moods and send them to friends or healthcare providers. CodeBlue offers the ability to send a message to a designated support network in case of a mental health emergency. Both are free. Lantern, a subscription-based service, matches teens and college students with therapeutic exercises and coaches to help them identify and reach their mental health goals.
All have been hampered by low adoption rates. So Oko consulted her young advisory board to find out what was missing from the existing apps. What they revealed was simple and unanimous: All of them wanted a way to connect with other teens struggling with mental illness. "We realized the ability to connect with one another is an incentive to keep teens tracking and engaged in their treatment," Oko told VICE.
This shouldn't have surprised anyone. "For kids who suffer from mental health issues, there is significant comfort in knowing that other teens suffer similarly," Alexander Kolevzon, MD, director of Child Behavioral and Health Science at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told VICE. "This 'normalization' of the experience provides enormous comfort and mitigates the vulnerability to social isolation."
There's inherent irony in using the very smartphones that hamper in-person human connection as a tool to combat social isolation. But Kolevzon points out that, like all of us, teenagers rely on their smartphones for social engagement and interaction—and plus, it's unrealistic to expect them to use archaic therapeutic strategies like a paper and pencil mood log.
Moellers, now 18, eventually wrote about her bullying and depression in a post that went viral in her community. She got dozens of messages from teens dealing with mental illness, which helped her appreciate how important it was to be able to talk about these shared experiences. "An app would be the starting point," she told VICE. "It would give people the chance to connect with others as well as give them the confidence they need to share their stories or help others who are struggling."
Psych.E is free to use, and like any good app for teens, it offers incentives—in this case, for users to do their therapeutic homework. As they track their moods and engage with content, they earn "diamonds" that can be used to add features to their avatars.
Pilot programs using the app will begin next month at multiple clinics, psychiatric hospitals, and schools across the country. During the pilot, school counselors and mental health providers will offer teens access to the app by way of anonymous codes, and their feedback and usage patterns will be collected along the way. "We're hoping psych.E will give adolescents an opportunity to talk about things that are happening for them in real-time so that their sessions with their providers are less abstract," Keith Wales, director of outpatient services at Eliot Community Human Services in Everett, Massachusetts, told VICE.
Although it was created with suicidal young people in mind, the app is designed to be used by teens with any kind of diagnosed mental illness. Maddy*, a member of psych.E's teen advisory board, says she isn't embarrassed by having ADHD, but she hasn't been able to talk to anyone who gets it because none of her friends have the same diagnosis. She sees a doctor and takes medication to control her symptoms, but she would have liked to compare notes with others about her medication trial and error, among other things.
Maddy will use psych.E's mood and medication trackers to capture her progress over time, but like Moellers, she is most excited to connect with other teens living with mental illnesses. And while she isn't averse to meeting peers in therapy groups or at school, she feels safer opening up about her struggles via her phone. "Honestly, if we met in person I would just get their numbers," she said with a laugh, "and text them when I got home."
*Maddy asked that we not use her last name.
UPDATE 4/15/16: An earlier version of this story said Keith Wales worked at Eliot Hospital in Everett, Massachusetts. He actually works at Eliot Community Human Services in Everett, Massachusetts.