This piece has been edited since its original publish date of March 29, 2019.
Persisting stigmas around mental health can make it difficult for Black youth to receive the help they need. They’re often forced to navigate misconceptions within their communities and anti-Blackness within the medical industry. One North Carolina based grad student is using tech to erase some of those barriers.
Henry Willis, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Clinical Psychology Graduate Program, is developing a mental health app for Black youth.
Finding ways to provide Black youth mental health resources is an absolute necessity. Everyday factors of being Black — like exposure to racism — can drastically impact people’s mental health.
This is something Willis himself noticed in his own research.
“I’ve published papers that have looked at how things such as online racial discrimination can lead to increased PTSD symptoms, or how positive racial identity beliefs can lead to better mental health over time, for African American youth” Willis told AfroTech.
Willis’ research inspired him to find an innovative way to help Black youth cope with stress and discrimination through technology. Willis described the app as not only providing a gateway for promoting better mental health, but also offering users ways to deal with things unique to the Black experience.
When most people think of apps, ones for Black mental health don’t immediately come to mind. But for Willis, it made perfect sense, as he noticed the popularity of mobile-health apps increasing over the past few years.
“For instance, if you have any sort of smart watch, you’re probably counting your steps or setting daily fitness goals which targets physical health,”Willis explained. “So I figured, why not have the same thing for mental health?”
Willis decided to focus on Black youth specifically, because it’s often a time period full of changes. Young people are often going into new environments –like college or the workforce — or even moving away from home and their support systems. Those experiences, combined with the struggle of learning how to be an adult, can take a toll on mental health.
“We often see a lot of these symptoms emerge around this time (between 18 and 25), such as depression and anxiety,” Willis shared. “Yet, unfortunately, we also know that Black young adults are 90 percent LESS likely to receive or have access to effective mental health treatments when compared to their white counterparts, for a variety of reasons.”
The app will provide a variety of services, including education about basic mental health systems (like explaining the basics of depression or anxiety) and information on how symptoms manifest. In addition, users can create a profile and “mental health plan”, so they can engage in things that promote mental health awareness.
It will also connect users to Black and other providers of color in the area. For Black youth, this is huge, because it can be really awkward to try talking about mental health to a white provider who you feel may not relate to.
Willis’ idea for a mental health app focusing on Black youth is definitely needed. It’s also an example of how to start conversations by reaching people where they’re at, like on their phones.
The app is currently still in development, with an anticipated summer 2019 launch. First, it’ll be available on any device that can access the internet. Willis plans to release it to platforms like the Apple App Store after that.