Smartphone App Uses Music to Help Black Teen Girls Cope with Stress

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On a Monday morning at Buchtel Middle School in Akron, a group of 7th and 8th grade girls are given small yellow bags as part of a session on improving mental health.

In the bag is a smartphone. While many might think most mental health sessions would involve counseling or journaling, this program includes a form of therapy that’s quite fitting for the newest generations: a smartphone app.

Rosalynnd McNeal is a 7th grader who says she joined the program to help her deal with stress.

"I’m always stressed out, like I’m one of the most stressful people I know, I’m always worried about something," said McNeal. "I thought it would help me, cause I need to rest sometimes, and I don’t know what to do to really relax sometimes."

These girls are part of a program called Sisters United Now, or SUN, headed by a group at Kent State University that aims to help black teen girls learn ways to cope with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Kent State psychologist Angela Neal-Barnett runs the SUN program. She says chronic stress and anxiety often start in childhood for black women, but many don’t realize it until adulthood.

"What we see in black women is if we're looking at anxiety," said Neal-Barnett. "They've had the anxiety for longer periods of time. So it's chronic and the symptoms are more intense. And when we go back to talk with them we find out that you know yes I've been experiencing this since I was 13 14 15."

Jordyn Lally is a psychology major at Kent who helped develop the app.

"Starting with the journal page, this is where girls are able to kind of reflect upon the different stressors they are experiencing," said Lally. "They’re able to journal about anything going on in their lives… This is when they’re kind of learning about positive and negative thoughts and the whole entire goal is for them to be able to write their statuses and then go back and identify whether their thoughts were positive or negative in nature."

A big part of the app is music, with the girls recording their own theme songs to listen to when they’re feeling anxious.

The most important part is a built-in survey that tracks improvements in the girls’ moods after they’ve listened to their song.

"Particularly within the black community, music is almost essential," Lally added. "They’ve been very comfortable using music to combat their stress and anxiety anyways… With the theme song, we’re teaching them kind of how to unwind their negative thoughts, and replace those thoughts with positive thoughts."

But it’s possible that the use of phones or social media for mental health could be a double-edged sword.

Several recent studies have found that devices can actually have a negative impact on mental health, according to psychologist Elizabeth Harris at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

"Any exposure to devices for a long period of time can be damaging to mental health, particularly with attention, with sleeping, and with person to person interaction," said Harris.

But Harris says along with the negatives, there are some positives that come with using a phone app as a therapeutic tool.

"When you speak to adolescents particularly you have to meet them where they are… being able to check in with yourself and see how you feel and do something positive and check in again is something that can naturally improve your mood. So being able to monitor how you feel moment to moment is actually a therapeutic technique."

Back at Buchtel Middle School, the research project calls for the girls to take part in 8 mental health sessions in collaboration with the app. Their responses to the built-in survey will be tracked as part of the research program to test the app’s effectiveness.

Roselynnd McNeal has high hopes.

"I hope that I get a place that helps me get through things that I need help," said McNeal. "Somebody’s not always there to help me with that. And I always have a phone on me, so that would be awesome if I could always have something with me like an app, that could help me with stress levels."

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