In 2018, estimates suggested that 79,000 secondary school students had experienced psychological distress, with 82% of that 79,000 not seeking any help or support. 1 in 3 of this age group spend over 4 hours a day on a digital device.
This ‘always on’ channel presented an opportunity. The University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences engaged RUSH to explore new ways to leverage teenager’s mobile phone time to support their mental wellbeing. The result was a project called Headstrong, the features of which were combined with COVID-19 wellbeing advice and launched as Aroha.
We began by interviewing five inspirational experts in the fields of psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy and young people’s mental health. We learnt that: Talking therapies and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have proven successful in helping youth improve their mental wellbeing they need to be equipped with effective evidence-based tools they can use.
This helped frame our design challenge: How might we intervene early to improve young people’s anxiety and depression using CBT delivered with digital technology?
Interviews with 12 Auckland teenagers gave us insights into what it is like to be a teenager today. A recurring theme was that they wanted someone they could confide in without fear of social consequences in their life. They wanted that to be someone who understood their culture, understood the stresses of being a teenager. and someone they could relate to, and look up to.
From the preliminary research we ran a series of workshops that resulted in the creation of a new digital platform that enabled our clients to develop their own friendly and trustworthy chatbots for young people to interact with.
To create something authentic for our teenage audience, we developed an appealing visual identity and personalities for the chatbots and the Headstrong program.
With Headstrong, we built a platform for creating personified chatbots, available 24/7 on Facebook Messenger. We created a group of teenage ‘personal trainers’, unique avatars users could interact with. Each was made to be as relatable as possible for young people in Aotearoa. Not super athletes or cool kids, just relatable friends teenagers could feel comfortable with. One of these avatars was Aroha, who has become the face of the project when it was adapted by the Auckland University clinical team to address the mental stresses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here is how a digital friendship with Aroha works: You initiate a conversation with her on Facebook Messenger. Her natural-feeling responses ask your name and introduce her. You set a goal, and schedule a time to check in each day. Each day, Aroha asks you to rate your mood, shares an inspiring quote and gives you different daily activities to try including breathing exercises and coping strategies. To keep it engaging, Ahora also shares rich content with video, images and games.
Aroha can behave like a friend, but it is important to note her limits and how this was built into her design. There are constraints to how much support Aroha can provide for a young person in severe distress. When a risk keyword or phrase is detected in a message sent to her, Aroha immediately asks if real life assistance is needed. The contact information of relevant mental health services is provided, and the young person is flagged for a real-person admin to follow up with.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, Auckland University created Aroha to become a vital channel for the continuous delivery of mental support to youth - she could offer practical advice on maintaining social connections and physical activities during lockdown.
It takes time to gather data and understand the true impact and power of any new tool or technology. But anecdotally, Aroha is making a difference for young people. Clinical trials with Aroha continue and the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an intense real-world test, highlighting the importance of an always-on tool to access mental wellbeing help remotely.