Screenshots from the COVID Coach app.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on mental health. Mental health apps are one source of support as people navigate this new reality. At One Mind PsyberGuide, we’ve been excited to see many app developers stepping up to support mental health in innovative ways.

I sat down (remotely) with Dr. Beth Jaworski, a social psychologist and Health Science Specialist at the National Center for PTSD, to talk about COVID Coach. This app was developed to help people face a number of challenges associated with the pandemic, and find resources and support. COVID Coach available for free and can be downloaded in the iTunes and Google Play stores.

 

Dr. Beth Jaworski
Dr. Beth Jaworski, Health Science Specialist at the National Center for PTSD

 
 

Tell me a little about this app and what inspired it.

When the pandemic started, we knew at the National Center for PTSD that we were well-positioned to create a public mental health resource to help. We could see that the crisis was going to impact mental health as well as physical health, with a lot of additional stressors, for example, financial stressors associated with job loss or work reduction. Shelter in place orders also sadly brought along with them increases in intimate partner violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. There’s a tremendous strain in the population, which we know will have some lasting mental health consequences. That’s why we created this tool, to try to help, at a time when virtual resources are more crucial than ever.
 
 

Given the need, what was it like to build the app as quickly possible while still ensuring it was developed rigorously?

The development of COVID Coach was certainly speedier than our usual product release timeline. The main factor which allowed for this was that we have a really excellent team of people who have been working together for a long time. We have built a whole suite of other mental health apps, such as PTSD Coach, and we were able to leverage some learnings from those apps. We built on the tools and educational materials from PTSD Coach, which are not only evidence-based but empirically supported. We had an entire team thoroughly review every piece of content for the app, including members of the Offices of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and the Director of the National Center for PTSD. We all recognized how urgently something like this was needed, and our whole team was extremely dedicated to this project, so we had the ability to temporarily set aside some other projects to focus primarily on this.
 
 

What data informed the development of the app?

With all of our apps, we normally gather a lot of information from end-users. Given the quick turnaround, in this case, we relied a little more on anecdotes, public opinion research about COVID-19 and mental health, and feedback from practicing clinicians on our team who received informal input based on the clients they were seeing and the unique challenges and stressors that were coming up. For example, our clinicians were seeing that parents were dealing with a lot of issues right now, so we made sure to include some resources for those populations. We included a feedback survey within the app so we can gather feedback on an ongoing basis. We are also looking for stakeholder feedback right now, so if anyone is interested in talking to us with their experiences using the app, we would love to hear from them and they can contact us at mobileux@va.gov. There is also a link to a feedback survey within the app. It can be accessed by going to the menu, then accessing the “Send Us Feedback” section.

Positive imagery exercise from the COVID Coach app.
Positive imagery exercise from the COVID Coach app.

 
 

What research supports the development of this app?

This app is strongly evidence-informed, and all of the tools in the app are based on cognitive behavioral therapy principles. Also, nearly every tool in the app has also been used in other evidence-based apps, such as PTSD Coach, which has been shown positive results in a number of studies including a Randomized Controlled Trial (Kuhn et al., 2017).
 
 

Thinking about the user experience of COVID Coach, what do you think is most exciting about this app?

We really had some fun with the design and included imagery that we felt would be uplifting for people. I’m really excited about the manage stress section, which includes exercises like deep breathing. We don’t collect any user identifiable information, but we can see that the deep breathing tool is the most viewed tool. We also included some fun, practical activities you could try at home. For example, if you like animals, you can check out the live stream of the Monterey Bay aquarium. There’s also a “finding resources” section with a lot of helpful resources for a range of things, such as reporting intimate partner violence, finding a therapist online, finding food banks in your area, reporting racist or xenophobic incidents. In comparison to other apps we have developed, COVID Coach is much broader in scope and really tries to address the vast range of experiences people are having right now.
 
 

Who do you think would benefit the most from this app?

The app was designed for any adult in the U.S. With so many resources in the app, we hope that just about anyone could find something in there that works for them, whether it’s people who need validation that the feelings they’re having are normal, useful coping skills, or to be connected with a local resource. This app is not intended to replace professional care, but can help point people towards other resources that can help. We have not yet translated to Spanish, but we do hope to do that.
 
 

What other advice would you have for people to manage their mental health during this time?

Each day, try to do something that is fun or that you enjoy. I will listen to my favorite song, or spend a few minutes looking at funny dog photos — anything that’s a positive distraction. Another thing that I’ve found helpful in my own life has been reaching out to friends and family to connect virtually. And finally, I think it’s so important to be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, and take a deep breath. Sometimes we feel like we need to be doing all of the things all of the time, and that’s how people burn out. Remember that nothing has to be perfect in this moment.
 
 

What else have you been doing for your own self-care?

I’ve been trying to get outside each day and walk my dogs. I know that’s not a possibility for everyone, but if it is, I find stepping outside and getting some fresh air to be really helpful.
 
 

Is there anything else you want to share?

I think the pandemic has really offered an opportunity to open up a lot of national conversations about mental health. I think tools like COVID Coach can really open the door for a lot of people who need support, during the current crisis and beyond.