Schoolchildren who have experienced trauma or neglect could benefit from the use of mental well-being apps in the classroom. That’s according to educationalists and welfare workers in Australia, where the use of apps in schools is becoming increasingly popular.

The apps are being used in a variety of ways.

Australia’s third largest state, the Northern Territory, is bigger than Egypt, Pakistan or Peru. Yet it’s home to fewer than 250,000 people. In this vast and sometimes inhospitable landscape, many smaller communities, especially those of the indigenous Aboriginal people, are isolated and lacking access to many support services.

St Joseph's Catholic College is one of 10 schools in the state that are trialling the Smiling Mind app. Teachers use it to help children refocus and settle down after breaks, recesses and lunch.

Dr Addie Wootten, who is a clinical psychologist and the chief executive of Smiling Mind, told Australian news network ABC: “The teacher can start to talk about how your body physically reacts to emotion, and how kids can learn simple techniques to calm their body so they settle themselves rather than react to those emotions.”

A problem but not a stigma

According to the World Health Organization, in the region of 450 million people worldwide are currently suffering from mental or neurological disorders – two-thirds of whom never seek help.

"Mental illness is not a personal failure. In fact, if there is failure, it is to be found in the way we have responded to people with mental and brain disorders," Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the WHO, says.

The causes of poor mental health and mental health breakdowns are yet to be fully understood. In its Fundamental Facts About Mental Health report, the UK-based Mental Health Foundation writes: “A significant body of work now exists that emphasises the need for a lifecourse approach to understanding and tackling mental and physical health inequalities. Disadvantage starts before birth and accumulates throughout life.”

Nature and nurture can both influence your mental well-being
Well-being depends on both nature and nurture.
Image: Mental Health Foundation

Smiling Mind provides additional training to schools and individual teachers in the use of their app and in mindfulness – how to practise it as well as how to teach it.

It’s just one of an increasing number of mental health and well-being apps available.

Profile building

In New Zealand and parts of Australia, some schools are using an app from the Australian Childhood Trauma Group. Rather than teach techniques like mindfulness, it seeks to build a profile of students that enables teachers to put support in place that meets an individual child’s particular needs.

Consultant psychologist Gregory Nicolau is the group’s founder and CEO. He says: "We wanted to find out whether students were ready for learning each day and secondly to determine if they weren't ready, what was interfering with their readiness.”

The app asks students to record their sleeping and eating patterns, and their feelings. Nicolau explains that once teachers have a better understanding of a child’s welfare "they can look at things like are they starting the day hungry or full? Are they starting worried or relaxed or sad or happy or angry or calm?"

OK to not be OK

Two teenagers from the US have developed an app with one clear message (it’s OK if you’re not OK) and one clear objective – suicide prevention. Called NotOK, the app encourages you to build a list of people you can turn to for help. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, tapping the app’s big red button will alert your trusted contacts.

The UK’s University of the West of England, Bristol, have created the Self-Help for Anxiety Management app. It encourages users to gain a deeper understanding of the causes of their anxiety through self-help exercises and private reflection. It also has a social networking element, that allows users to share their experiences anonymously.

There are also apps configured specifically for people with mood-related mental health challenges, such as depression or bipolar. One such example is the iMoodJournal, which is part personal diary and part mood-charting tool. Users can track their mood, their sleep, medication regimes, note down their symptoms, record stress, anxiety, or energy level, and more.

The Happify app uses games and activities to encourage positive thinking.
The Happify app uses games and activities to encourage positive thinking.
Image: Happify

Another is Happify, which uses a series of games and other absorbing activities in an attempt to show people how to change their thoughts and feelings for the better.

Naturally, there are limits to what an app can do for someone who needs help with their mental well-being and it might never replace the work a professional psychotherapist can do with a patient.

But it can put elements of that help within the grasp of people who live in a remote location, or in a country lacking facilities, or because they simply can’t afford to get professional help.