An App to Help Calm the Jagged Emotions of Teen Life

Teens studying “Health Informatics,” a brand new class at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, Wash. were introduced to the Verizon Innovative App Challenge as they tried processing two difficult concepts: the new world of electronic medical records and information technology and a tragic school shooting in the state during October.

Four female students were touched by the senseless loss of life, but were also inspired by the App Challenge to brainstorm helpful solutions. Their discussions ultimately led to a Best in Nation App Challenge Award-Winning idea: Safe & Sound—designed to help teens deal with stress, anxiety and depression. The app will combine a list of hotlines to call in an emergency; advice on how to talk to others and work through problems; notifications and tips on getting through the day, plus a spoken journal using voice recognition.

The girls knew from experience that stress, anxiety and depression are common at this age, yet rarely discussed. “Teens usually turn to their cell phones when things are difficult. We felt he (the teenage shooter in Marysville, Wash.) must have had a lot of stress,” said winning team member Stephanie Lopez.

App Challenge teammate Amanda Arellano says the signs of struggle are not hard to find, as angry “digital graffiti” is posted throughout social media, but there is nowhere for teens to find interactive help. “We see teens vent their anger in texts or go on a rant on Twitter. Yet there’s no helpful response from friends because we shy away from things we don’t understand.”

While guiding the team and improving the Safe & Sound app, teacher Kristel Kinder suggested the adult notion of “getting a second opinion” might apply to teen mental health. “This app should help kids second-guess their negative thoughts, and then seek out help.” Arellano adds, “it may take awhile before a teen is ready to talk, especially with an adult, so before they’re ready to do that, we want to help them manage and get some good advice.”

The team’s research of the web and app stores showed existing mental health apps take more of a textbook approach and offer reading material for adults about depression, anxiety and stress, but are not interactive.

The Tri Tech Skills Center team members, including Arellano, Lopez, Marina Stepanov and Chloe Westphal, have each received a Samsung Galaxy tablet, a chance to work with a professor from MIT Media Labs to develop the application, plus a trip to Dallas, Texas this summer to present the app before the national Technology Student Association conference. The school also wins a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, which will be invested in professional development for STEM teachers and supplemental STEM curriculum and materials for the classroom, including Ms. Kinder’s Health Informatics class.

Scott Charlston is a public relations manager with Verizon Wireless. Follow him on Twitter at: @VZWScott.