Moncton Entrepreneurs Create ‘Moodie’, An App To Help Youth Cope With Anxiety And Depression

Michael Sandalis, Vladimir Kim and Richard Wilson at the launch of Moodie. Image: Submitted

MONCTON – Mental health is a major issue in Canadian society today, especially among the country’s youth. Nearly one in four suffer from mental illness, according to a 2013 study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. So, two Moncton entrepreneurs created an app called Moodie to help alleviate the problem.

Moodie is an app that aims to help people manage their mood and mental health. Currently still at a functional prototype stage, the app will be free for youth ages 13 to 21, while adults will be charged a subscription fee that’s yet to be determined.

The idea for Moodie came up after programmer and youth worker Richard Wilson noticed that many of the troubled and at-risk youth he saw through John Howard Society hadn’t seen a mental health professional even though they urgently needed to do so. He teamed up with friend Michael Sandalis, the manager of innovation execution at Atlantic Lottery, to come up with a technological solution.

“Mike and I have known each other for several years now and we’ve worked on a few little projects together…We’ve always had the common belief and feeling and ideals about doing something for good,” Wilson said.

“We looked in the market, we didn’t see anything that’s exceptionally good and focused on the youth side. And [that] involved the processes and programming that a therapist would use to try and help somebody along and provide those resources and tools in the proper way. So that’s how it all started.”

The two worked with other programmers on contract to create the app. They also worked with the Atlantic Wellness Community Centre in Moncton to gather necessary content. But most importantly, they work with therapists and youth to develop the content of the app. The therapists provide input and also supervise sessions with youth to ‘co-create’ the app.

“Basically, what you see in the app – features, the look and feel, et cetera – we actually sat around in a room on several occasions with youth that had anxiety and depression,” Sandalis said.

[The youth] really took on the role of advising us and being very honest with us and saying, ‘hey, I don’t like that and that sucks, and I would never do that’.”

In speaking to therapists, they learned that teenagers often have trouble conveying emotions and ideas, so therapists end up spending a good chunk of their time getting to the point where the teens would talk about what’s upsetting them. It takes about 10 sessions before the could get to an activity that could help change moods and viewpoints.

And there are many barriers to youth accessing mental health care, including that they don’t know where to go and who to reach out to. Many mental health and addiction therapy services also have a long waiting list. Wilson said the app can help offer cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to people struggling with anxiety and depression as they wait.

“What we were thinking is just give them the support in their hand, resources so they can help themselves until they can see the professional who is the expert,” Wilson said. “And we’re not trying to replace [the experts]. We’re just trying to work alongside them.”

The pair plans to make the data entered into the app by a user to be accessible by their therapist, for a fee, so that treatment can take place more efficiently and effectively, hence allowing the therapist to have more time to see other patients.

The Moodie app. Image: Submitted

In the app, users can log in using their e-mail or Facebook account. One of the first things users will encounter in the app are questions to determine red flags so that those in need of immediate support can see a page that includes information like the number for Kids Help Phone, aboriginal support systems and 911.

An animated character called a moodie will walk the user through the app and guide them on how to make their mood better. The user can then create an avatar to represent themselves. They can enter information about their mood, exercise, sleep, nutrition and overall wellness, and track them over time.

Users can also make journal entries, add voice recordings and images, put reminders for activities, document their habits, listen to music and most importantly, carry out “missions.”

Those are CBT techniques that users can use to help change their mood. This may include doing breathing exercises, doing small physical exercises like push-ups, or expressing themselves through drawing, for example.

In the future, Wilson and Sandalis plan to connect wearables to the app so users can see how their bodies react to those techniques in real time.

“We want to show you that when you sit and do this, you’ll see the pay off right in front of you,” Wilson said.

The pair also plan to offer the platform to educational institutions around the world for free.

“The healthcare system is very complicated and big…if there’s a way that you can just incrementally help, you can see where that’s going to pay off with someone who’s most vulnerable,” Sandalis said.