UMich Alumni Promote Student Mental Health With New Journaling App

During his freshman year at the University of Michigan, Tommy Searle’s father passed away. In addition to the overwhelming support Searle received from friends, family and the UM community, Searle – who graduated in May 2020 – told the Michigan Daily that he started journaling after the therapist he had seen at the University Psychology and Counseling Services (CAPS) suggested it.

“This is how I was introduced to journaling the first year,” Searle said. “But I really found that there were a lot of improvements that could be made around it, like including the fun aspect, making it easier to follow as a habit, and (making it) more sociable and easy. rather than just pulling out a piece of paper and writing on it, it just wasn’t sustainable for me.

Fast forward four years to today: Searle is now co-founder of Wellnest, a mindful journaling app he designed with three other UM alumni. Since the group launched the app in December 2020, Searle, Jack Kornet, Drew Pilat, and Mars Hovasse have made virtual logging accessible to around 7,000 users. Specially designed for iPhones and available for download on iOS, Wellnest is free. However, a user can choose to purchase a paid subscription of $ 5 per month which adds access to guided wellness and mental health courses to the free logging platform.

The free and paid versions of the app allow users to type, jot down or say aloud daily thoughts that they want to display on their phone screen. Wellnest aims to help users identify their emotions throughout the week with “mood controls” and provides access to various chat and “deepen” prompts that users can reflect on and write on. Journal entries are stored in users’ phones and are also backed up to their iCloud so they can monitor mental growth and changes.

Searle said his passion for mental health awareness began following the death of his father. After his father passed away, Searle sold t-shirts featuring the logo of his father’s craft beer business and donated all proceeds to a mental health foundation. But when Searle entered his first year in 2019 at the University, he said he realized there might be a way to use the technical skills he was learning as a major in computer science to promote mental well-being. During an internship at LinkedIn that year, Searle said he quickly clicked with another intern and cognitive science major at UM, Marissa “Mars” Hovasse. According to Searle, Hovasse was intrigued by Searle’s desire to create an app that normalizes the adoption of positive psychology – by focusing on individual strengths and working towards personal growth – on a daily basis.

“That’s kind of how the concept (of Wellnest) started,” Searle said. “Just around creating something that would help people talk about what’s going on in their heads, and (how they can) do it in a healthy way, but also fun, playful and accessible.”

When Searle returned to college in the fall of 2019 for his final year, he recruited two of his brothers from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity – Jack Kornet senior in art and design and Drew Pilat in business – to help him, he and Hovasse, to develop their basic concept into a single, user-friendly application.

“The biggest problem we saw was that there were a lot of apps and resources that felt really clinical or really inaccessible,” Searle said. “And that is, for us, what was preventing so many people from getting help or finding an outlet that would actually be of use to them. And that’s what we wanted to do: create a point of sale that is fun.

LSA sophomore Nandini Arya started journaling last year, after being encouraged to regularly jot down her thoughts by a friend. Arya said she has since found the activity to be extremely cathartic and beneficial. Although she regularly uses audio journaling techniques to organize her thoughts, Arya has said that she will occasionally handwrite her journal entries when stressed.

“It helps me get things out of my system,” Arya said. “If I think of something or if I can’t stop thinking of something that worries me, if I write it in a way that feels like I’m talking to someone, it relieves me somewhat. so. “

Searle said the Wellnest development team plans to launch a new beta of the app – currently accessible only with a direct invitation from the creators – by the end of the year. Searle said the new version of the app is more interactive than the current logging platform and noted several similarities between its design and that of the popular Nintendo Animal Crossing video game series. As with Animal Crossing, in the new version of Wellnest, users will have an individual “avatar” and an island environment to interact with.

“You can write in it or take pictures and then you can plant these poles (like flowers) and put them on your island,” Searle said. “That way, when you get close to the flowers, it will evoke that written or photographic memory. It’s like this cool way of creating a visual notebook, like a gallery of reflection.

Nansook Park, professor of psychology and director of the Michigan Positive Psychology Center, told The Daily how journaling can help students understand and ease their daily stress.

“(The students) are on what I call ‘autopilot mode’ all the time,” Park said. “So they always think of task after task and hardly take a break or think about where they’ve been, what’s happened and where they’re going. So I think if they can take (journaling) seriously, I think it can be effective.

Rates of worrying mental health symptoms and suicidality have increased in recent years among students attending post-secondary institutions, with college students apparently “more stressed than ever.” As a result, Searle said Wellnest can be particularly impacting for this demographic.

Searle and the other developers began signing collaborative contracts with universities including the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University over the past year, making the Wellnest full and paid membership available to all students, teachers and staff at no cost to them. When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly closed campuses and classes went virtual, stress, anxiety and loneliness became major issues within UM’s student body and at colleges across the country. Searle said the launch of Wellnest and the contracts with universities were timely due to the mental health issues students faced during the pandemic.

“COVID had just struck in the spring,” Searle said. “So all of these schools were fully online, which meant they had very little, if any, good mental health resources for their students. So it seemed like a great time for (Wellnest) to work with them. ”

Although cuts were made to wellness services and mental health departments at universities in several cases during the pandemic, Searle said the universities with which Wellnest had worked have found the new partnership to be mutually beneficial.

“I remember talking to three schools where half of their welfare services were made redundant,” Searle said. “By working with these schools, we were able to talk to amazing people. At UPenn, for example, our partners are the best in their field, working on positive psychology programs or implementing solutions in all kinds of diverse spaces in the mental health field. We kind of learn from them as much as they learn from us, so that part was really cool.

When asked whether or not the Wellnest team were considering collaborating with the University, Searle said he initially considered the possibility, but was never put in touch with a “right person.” -resource ”to the University with which to communicate. According to Searle, he contacted CAPS and Wolverine Wellness about a potential partnership, but they weren’t interested in speaking with Wellnest at the time.

CAPS director Dr Todd Sevig told The Daily that CAPS is currently exploring how to integrate various new technologies into its counseling and mental health services – and Wellnest is one of the options. Sevig told The Daily that CAPS did not initially pursue a partnership with Wellnest because they focused on improving in-person services, rather than virtual mental health services at the time.

Now, after a year of offering virtual counseling services, Sevig said CAPS is working with student groups such as the Student Advisory Council, the Central Student Government, CAPS in Action, and the Wolverine Support Network to gather data and student feedback on the technologies they would use. would like to see CAPS use in the future. CAPS hopes to implement some of these new virtual services by the start of the fall semester 2021.

“We’re currently studying and exploring a whole bunch of new technology and (Wellnest) would be one of them,” Sevig said. “There are other (virtual mental health services) available. And so we are in a decision making process.

Although Park stressed that she was not opposed to a potential partnership between the University and Wellnest, she said she was skeptical about the effectiveness of apps and technology in general when it comes to mental health. .

“I’m not opposed to (Wellnest),” Park said. “My only concern is that it’s easy for people to use the app because it’s something easy: you can just pay and then let them do it. A tool is a tool, but it won’t magically make students healthier and happier… I don’t know how effective it will be, if it will really make a dent in promoting mental health and good -being students.

Arya said she would personally like the University to offer Wellnest’s services to students, as journaling is a powerful activity for her and can be helpful in improving the mental health of other students.

“(The journaling has) been helpful and helped me see what really is a big deal versus what seems like a big deal right now,” Arya said. “Especially during normal college hours there’s a lot going on all the time, so I think that would be a good way to help filter that out and organize those thoughts.”

Daily journalist Martha Lewand can be reached at [email protected].

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