If you want to offer proper care to young people with mental health issues, you must identify their problems as early as possible. But how do you do that? And could we perhaps teach young people how to cope with what they are up against at an earlier stage? The Erasmus MC-Sophia Children’s Hospital and EUR co-developed an app for young people with an increased risk of mental problems: the Grow It! app.
Manon Hillegers works as Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Erasmus MC-Sophia Children’s Hospital. She teamed up with Professor of Orthopedagogy Loes Keijsers from ESSB, and together a team of colleagues, students and young people, they developed the Grow It! app. It’s an app designed by young people for young people.
Identification and challenges
Loes: “On the one hand, the app focuses on identification, i.e. we want to identify how a child is doing as early as possible. Young people gain insight into their emotions by filling in a micro questionnaire. On the other hand, the app has an activating role, asking what you can do yourself when you notice things are going wrong.” It entails a series of challenges that teach young people how to cope with, say, stress. Once you’ve completed a challenge, you earn points.
Making research fun
Manon explains that measuring emotions is nothing new. “As a clinician, I do a lot of work with adolescents and their parents. During our sessions, we ask young people to fill in a questionnaire, which, among other things, addresses their emotions. This is merely a snapshot though. The beauty of the app is that the participants get to share their emotions every day. This gives us researchers and the young people themselves a much deeper understanding of how you feel in a particular situation and what works for you, say, to get out of a negative emotion.” Loes adds: “We thought, they all have a research device in their pocket, so let’s make our research fun. What we do in the app was already being done, but without using phones. We turned it into a game.”
The 2020 launch of the app was preceded by an extensive development phase. Local authorities, care institutions, patient associations, students and young people shared their ideas. Loes: “Without all those people, we would not have got anywhere. “We are extremely grateful to everyone who has helped us turn this dream into reality.” Manon: “You can come up with something theoretical, but it’s only when you test it with parents and young people that you know whether or not it works. We really took our time with it. We also wanted to do this with young people.” These young people participated in focus groups in which they actively shared ideas on what does and doesn’t work. Then along came corona, and the government offered subsidies to those with good ideas relating to youth welfare. Loes: “We thought: ideas? We have the solution! Suddenly, our target audience widened. After all, all young people suddenly belonged to the risk group for which our app had been developed.”
The partnership has since grown into eHealth Junior (eHealth Junior), a cooperative arrangement that counts over 25 members, in addition to Erasmus MC and EUR. Its purpose is to use apps to identify and prevent emotional problems and to foster well-being through play and behavioural change. Manon: “We want children to live their lives happily and grow up to be resilient.”
Manon on Loes:
“Loes is full of life; that inspires me. New plans give her energy, and, like me, she is a doer. Loes is, and I mean this as a positive thing, the nerd between us. You don’t want to let me handle any complex data analyses, but Loes relishes them. I am proud of her and I am happy that we complement each other so well.”
Loes on Manon:
“Manon has really got guts. She is someone who isn’t afraid to go out into the world with an idea, and she has built an outstanding network to do just that. Manon also has vision. She knows exactly what needs to be done about care for our young people, and she brings her real-world experience along with her; she knows how care works. I’m very grateful for the chance to work with her.”