Behind the scenes, as Sara Gillis prepared to present her work to an international audience at the fourth annual E-Mental Health Conference in Vancouver last weekend, she received some motivating news.
“When I was rehearsing for my presentation, my boss actually told me she received an email all the way from London saying how the app has helped people,” she began. “It really hit me, the sense that I really am making an impact and my contribution is helping someone all the way over in England. That’s something that really, really moved me.”
Gillis is a first-year psychology student at TRU, and for the past year the Vancouver Island Health Authority has been consulting with her and eight other youth on how to build a smartphone app to promote mental health among teens and young adults.
The app, called BoosterBuddy, is based around an animated “buddy” that befriends the user to help them track and take care of their mental health. It hit the Apple and Android app stores in September 2014 and received roughly 3,600 downloads in its first three months.
When users open it for the first time, they are surveyed to identify potential mental health challenges they may have. Then, depending on the needs of the user, the app will set out “quests” that can range from simply trying new coping mechanisms (in mild cases) to following a medication schedule and following a crisis plan (in more severe cases). Completing these quests earns users virtual coins, which they can use to deck out their buddy with accessories ranging from cool sunglasses to goofy moose hats (and yes, this app is 100 per cent Canadian).
“Often times, people who are struggling with mental health challenges also struggle with motivation,” Island Health occupational therapist Lauren Fox explained.
Back in 2013, Fox saw gamification as a potential solution.
“I’ve had an interest in how mobile apps can be helpful for giving people tools to self-manage their own wellness,” she said.
Gamification is the process of applying the same features that make video games engaging to non-game scenarios.
Island Health began working on the BoosterBuddy app during March 2013 after receiving funding from Coast Capital Savings. Fox explained that the first step in developing the app was gathering a focus group of youth for advice.
Gillis was introduced to the project through a focus group, but she wanted to take things a step further.
“Originally, they were offering a $50 honorarium for the meeting, but I emailed them and said I didn’t want any money. I just wanted to be involved as much as I could. I have my own history in mental health. I’ve been surrounded by it all throughout high school personally, and with my friends and family, and I wanted to help,” Gillis said.
“A couple months later I heard back from them. They said they wanted me as part of their development team.”
Starting in January 2014, Gillis began meeting with software developers, Island Health clinicians, other youth and parents of mentally ill youth.
“We met at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and we had the software developers coming to us with ideas,” she said.
Along with the rest of the app’s “youth team,” Gillis helped determine what the app’s goals were, how those goals would be achieved, and what types of coping mechanisms needed to be included in the app’s library.
She also advised the developers on what would and wouldn’t make sense in terms of design and copywriting.
“The imagery was very important. It had to be comforting to the user,” Fox explained.
“We went through several pages of ideas on what the buddy should look like. It went from [the developers] saying ‘Oh, here’s some little dragons’ to all the youth saying ‘No, if youth are confiding in an app and trusting it and wanting its support, I wouldn’t want something with horns and teeth.’ And we made sure we approached [the copy] in a way where there weren’t certain words that could trigger someone,” Gillis said.
Coast Capital Savings recently approved a second round of funding for the app, which will allow the team to develop new features for the app, according to Fox.
“I was told I would definitely be invited back to the team in the summer,” Gillis said.
In the meantime, she wants to ramp up her involvement in mental health advocacy in Kamloops.
“On the island, I got my name out there as a mental health advocate. I’d like to get more involved here.”
One of her goals is to eventually join the regional board for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“The most important thing about all the publicity the app is getting is spreading awareness for mental health, reducing stigma and letting people know that support is really accessible,” Gillis said.