Award-winning app boosts mental health help for youth

June 24, 2015

Young people are up to 10 times more likely to disclose mental health concerns using a new app.

You are 16 years old and have a secret, which you’ve been carrying around for what feels like your whole life. You feel trapped so you turn to marijuana and alcohol to numb the pain. Your grades begin to slip and your parents are worried so they send you to a psychologist. During your first visit, the clinician in the waiting room starts asking questions, and all you can hear is your heartbeat ringing in your ears.

When it comes to receiving effective mental health treatment, early diagnosis and non-judgmental support are essential. In order to assess what types of treatment options are available, many clinicians start with a verbal assessment. However this verbal assessment is a barrier for many young people, preventing treatment. Psychologist and PhD candidate Sally Bradford recognised that young people between the ages of 12­­–25 could benefit from a different kind of assessment.

“They’re going into an environment where they’re expected to verbally relay everything that is going on in their lives – to tell their deepest, darkest secrets that they may have never said out loud before,” Bradford says. “It can take a long time for them to find the words – especially if the clinician doesn’t ask the right questions,” she says.

As part of her PhD focusing on the use of technology in face-to-face mental health care with young people, Bradford created the electronic psychosocial assessment app called “myAssessment” that helps clinicians evaluate young people quickly and easily. Speaking to the National Mental Health Commission’s review of Australia’s mental health system, this new screening process underscored the need to improve health services and support through innovative technologies.

“The app could be beneficial in any field where you’re needing groups of people to be truthful, and give answers in a way that they do not feel judged,” Bradford says.

Based on the strides Bradford made in youth mental health with the invention of myAssessment, she was awarded the $5000 top prize at the CRC Association Early Career Research Showcase at the CRCA’s Excellence in Innovation Awards Dinner in Canberra.
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The app was developed in close conjunction with the Young & Well CRC, youth focus groups and clinicians, and subsequently trialled at a headspace Centre in Canberra over nine months in 2014.

“The app was designed with significant input from young people and clinicians, and puts their needs and requirements first. For clinicians, it follows an evidence-based format and doesn’t require changes to the way they currently provide services. For young people, it’s interactive, engaging, and easy to use,” Bradford says.

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The way it works is a patient arrives for their appointment. Prior to seeing a clinician, patients complete myAssessment on an iPad in the waiting room. The app is a simple survey, but with a range of different response options. Topics include alcohol and drug habits, sexual preference, eating habits and anxiety and depression. Questions include screening and probing questions. Screening questions can be a yes or a no answer that prompts further questioning: Do you drink? Smoke? Have you tried or used drugs? What have you tried?

A probing question allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue, such as, how do you (and your friends) take them? (drugs). After answering and submitting these questions, a personalised ‘Clinician Summary’ details the patient’s risks and strengths, providing the clinician with a foundation for the first interview.

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Bradford’s trials proved to be particularly enlightening, with an 87% response rate, and ¾ of patients reporting that myAssessment provided them with an “accurate” representation of themselves. The results also showed that young people were up to 10 times more likely to open up about drug and alcohol use, sexuality, and self-harm when the application was used, in comparison to a verbal assessment with the same questions.

“There was a wealth of data generated over the course of the trial, which could be particularly useful for policy reform in the future,” Bradford says.

Kara Norton

Young & Well CRC 

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