Mental Health App Q&A: How can Nod help during the pandemic, and beyond?
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on mental health. Given the nature of our situation and the need to physically distance, digital mental health can offer unique opportunities to help people as they navigate this new reality. At One Mind PsyberGuide, we’ve been enthused to see many app developers stepping up to the plate to support mental health in innovative ways.
I sat down (remotely) with Dr. Nathaan Demeers, Vice President and Director of Clinical Programs at Grit Digital Health, to talk about Nod. Nod is an app jointly developed by Hopelab and Grit Digital Health to help young adults cultivate meaningful social connections to combat loneliness. In light of COVID-19, Nod is available for free and can be downloaded in the Apple and Google Play stores through the summer of 2020.
Tell me a little about this app and what originally inspired it.
Nod is like a workout app for your social life. Research by HopeLab shows that loneliness is on the rise, with Gen Z being the loneliest living generation. We know that loneliness is correlated with future increases in anxiety, depression, substance use, acute suicidality, and, for college populations, premature dropout. So Nod was a convergence of our skills at Grit Digital Health and HopeLab’s expertise to try to tackle the issue of loneliness in college students.
You redesigned the app in light of COVID-19. Tell me about the changes you made.
The app was originally designed to help college students get out into the real world and practice the skills of “friending”, which of course, was no longer possible with the introduction of social distancing. We quickly mobilized our team and within three weeks we swapped out all of the content to make all of the activities social distancing friendly, while still maintaining the central evidence-based tenants of the app. For example, one of the original challenges was to express gratitude to someone you know, which was adapted to setting up a virtual cup of coffee or sending an email to someone that helped you over the last few weeks.
What was it like to make these changes as quickly as possible while still ensuring the content is credible and developed rigorously?
We had a lot of confidence in our model, given that we carried out a randomized controlled trial of the app in the fall, and found that the use of the app indeed decreased loneliness and depression (these preliminary results will be published in the coming months). The updated app uses the same principles of that model, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology. The same experts that helped us develop the in-person content helped us to apply a social distancing lens, swapping out activities so that they can be done in a virtual environment.
In addition to the randomized controlled trial, what other data streams informed the development of the app?
We had an 18-month research process before we started building anything, in which we talked to over 50 experts in fields of academia, research, and psychology. We co-designed with over a hundred students who looked at a number of prototypes and helped us whittle that down to the app we have today. We had in-depth user testing sessions with students to get feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t like about the app, and we updated accordingly. And then after we did arrive at our final product, we undertook that randomized controlled trial with future research pending for the 2020–2021 academic year.
Thinking about the user experience of Nod, what are the features that you’re most excited about?
I’m equally excited about the three main features; testimonials, challenges, and reflections. I like them all because they all lead to a change in behavior in a complimentary way. The testimonials help students realize that it takes time to create friendships, they don’t just happen magically overnight. The challenges break down big social tasks of making friends into smaller, more approachable pieces. The reflections allow students to process how these challenges or social interactions went, and identify how it made them feel, and the app can customize accordingly.
Who do you think would benefit the most from this app?
All of our research shows that folks that are experiencing symptoms of loneliness and/or depression are the ones that would benefit most from this. The reality is; we’ve all felt lonely at times. Individuals across the are reporting feeling more lonely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we see this benefiting a broad range of people given the current reality.
Do you have any other advice for people to manage their mental health during this time?
As difficult as it is, we all have to get more comfortable with uncertainty. For most of us, our brains are in overdrive trying to predict what next week, next month, next year might look like. And the reality is we simply don’t know. Lean into your support network, talk about anxieties (even though you won’t figure them all out), and unplug when you feel overwhelmed from the constant media stream.
Finally, what have you been doing for your own self-care?
I would say two things that I’ve been doing (mostly!) successfully; the first is being active, which is incredibly important for me. The second is managing transitions, which are so important throughout our day; as much as you hate a commute, it serves an important purpose. I’ve been trying to actively make transitions in my day, so going for a short walk between rooms in my house between meetings, before and after lunch, between activities. If I don’t have that two minutes to walk between rooms, my brain can really just stay in overdrive.
Is there anything else you want to tell me or share about Nod?
We originally designed the app for campuses and we know that being able to launch this at the campus level can have a really big impact. We are very excited to launch Nod for campuses this fall as an enterprise solution with our first few campuses already lined up. If campuses want to learn more, they can visit heynod.com.