California introduces innovative mental health apps for families and youth

Blanca Paniagua felt anxious.

The young adult was scheduled to present at a webinar discussing one of CalHope’s innovative apps. 

“Seeing the number of participants, I felt like I needed to use the app to help calm my nerves,” Paniagua shared. 

Yet, Paniagua found comfort in the app’s strategies, which included techniques to manage anxiety. 

As per a study by the California Department of Public Health, there was a 20% increase in suicides among youths aged 10 to 18 in the state following the pandemic. In response to the escalating mental health challenges, the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) unveiled two novel app-based initiatives, BrightLife Kids and Soluna, as immediate aids for youths up to 25 years old.

“I used to struggle with self-expression,” shared Esther Verdugo, another Soluna user who dealt with anxiety due to her hectic schedule before utilizing the journaling exercises offered in the app. “I found solace in journaling, as I saw others express themselves, but I couldn’t; now, it’s all achieved through the app.”

The launch of both apps aligns with the Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health by California Governor Gavin Newsom, with an allocated budget of $4.7 billion for 2022. The free apps are designed to provide diverse resources. 

The BrightLife Kids app caters to children under 13 in California, offering mental health resources accessible with parental assistance. Children can explore the app under parental guidance and can request family or one-on-one coaching. 

Meanwhile, the Soluna app is tailored for California teens and young adults between 13 and 25, covering various topics identified through Soluna’s extensive research involving 300+ California youths. These themes include body image, self-discovery, anxiety, and depression.

The app features a constellation layout, with each star representing a different exercise like articles, podcasts, videos, and quizzes integrated within the app. An exercise like meditative breathing was developed in collaboration with Calm app, Apple’s 2017 App of the Year.

“It’s evident that the needs of younger kids differ significantly from older adolescents and young adults,” remarked Amrita Sehgal, vice president of business operations at Brightline, creators of BrightLife Kids. “For younger kids, it’s crucial to involve parents, caregivers, and families in their care, while older kids prefer more independent interactions.”

Accessing mental health assistance has posed challenges for many Californians. Dr. Beth Pausic, vice president of clinical excellence & safety at Kooth Digital Health, pointed out, “The current US healthcare system faces a provider shortage, lacking therapists and psychiatrists, making it particularly challenging for teenagers, especially those who are of color or LGBTQ.”

Emphasizing the need for continuous mental health discussions even beyond crisis moments, the apps emphasize prevention and early intervention. The individual coaching sessions are intended as initial responses, not as substitutes for therapists or conventional behavioral health approaches.

“Mental health discourse should be ongoing and not just surge during headline tragedies,” Pausic emphasized. “Covid highlighted mental health issues, but the crisis has always been present. We just haven’t addressed it openly.”

Kids and teenagers eager to benefit from the services can download the apps from the Apple App Store, with BrightLife Kids also available on the Google PlayStore and Soluna soon to follow.

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