The statistics are grim. About one in three college students experience some sort of significant mental health issue — depression, social anxiety, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, you name it.
For years, the School of Public Health’s Dr. Daniel Eisenberg has looked for ways to effectively and efficiently improve the wellbeing of young people who struggle with mental health issues. A recurring roadblock, though, is that young people aren’t always open to treatment options.
“Our data documents that about 50 percent of students with significant mental health problems are not receiving treatment,” said Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy. “Our hope is that digital services can help bridge that gap to some extent or supplement the services that they’re already receiving.”
His research findings inspired him to pursue the idea of creating a mental health-based mobile app that could promote help-seeking behavior, while introducing popular coping skills.
Dr. Eisenberg turned to Dr. Jasprit Singh, a U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science who has built platform technology for mobile apps. Singh and his colleague John Hinckley have consulted with a number of U-M researchers on the development of mobile apps, and by creating a general platform, they can reduce costs and turnaround time.
“It’s still relatively unknown to many that you don’t have to be a coder to get into the area of app production,” Dr. Singh said. “And you don’t need $100,000 to create an app. If you have good ideas and a small amount of funding, you can create an app for as little as $5,000.”
Dr. Singh helped Dr. Eisenberg build Tinyshifts, an app that actively prompts users to answer questions about their mental health issues. Based on their responses, the app then recommends short videos, some of which are produced by U-M students.
“A lot of apps try to actively prompt users, but I think we have more reason to be hopeful than the average app,” Eisenberg said. “Our prompts might actually be welcomed instead of being considered annoying because our app is clearly designed to benefit people’s wellbeing. It’s something that everyone values.”
Tinyshifts is being user tested, and Dr. Eisenberg hopes to publicly launch the app this fall.
At first, Dr. Eisenberg was hesitant to pursue a mobile app, but working with Dr. Singh has convinced him that researchers worldwide are soon bound to pursue this route as technology continues to transform our everyday lives.
“There are so many professors at the University of Michigan who recognize the potential impact that mobile technology can have,” Dr. Singh said. “There are an estimated 1.3 billion smartphones out there, and they’re more than communication devices — they’re game changers. There is so much opportunity that researchers can tap into if you have the right kind of mobile technologies. Simply put, they’re one of our most powerful tools.”
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