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Friday, January 22, 2021

First-year Western student creates mental wellness app for students

Abigayle Peterson started working on Magnify Wellness when she was in high school

A graphic of the features Magnify Wellness includes. Along with first-year Western student Abigayle Peterson, the app has also had help from a team of 86 volunteers.

By Mathew Willoughby 

Through passion for mental health awareness and resources, a 19-year-old Western student has created an app to help those struggling with mental wellness amid a pandemic.

First-year Western Honors student Abigayle Peterson created Magnify Wellness, a mobile app on Apple’s App Store to help those struggling with mental wellness. It has been downloaded and used by over 600 users since it was published in August and continues to grow, Peterson said.  

Peterson said she created the app because she knows what it is like to feel isolated and anxious.

“I’m passionate about mental health awareness because I know what it’s like to experience the mental health stigma, which perpetuates a cycle of not knowing where to find the resources to feel better, not knowing who to talk to,” Peterson said. “I’ve been through that, and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.” 

The app’s most used features include an artificial intelligence chatbot named Maggie, a journal that helps you write through prompts and breathing exercises, Peterson said. 

Another first-year Western Honors student, Harrison Toppen-Ryan, began using the app when Peterson introduced him to it. He said he used the app because he did not have mental health resources easily available to him and was not satisfied with the mental health resources his high school provided. 

The chatbot was his favorite feature, as talking to Maggie made him feel better, Toppen-Ryan said. 

“When I first started using it, it felt a little bit weird because I thought, ‘Am I really talking to an AI right now?’” Toppen-Ryan said. “But once you use the app for a while, you begin to [think] like, ‘Oh, okay this actually isn’t so bad.’”

Maggie provided comfort in ways that high school counselors could not, Toppen-Ryan said. 

Adam Haim, chief of the Treatment and Preventative Intervention Research Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, said mental health and wellness apps are growing in numbers and use. 

“There’s been a growing momentum independent of the pandemic for mental wellness apps,” Haim said. “App developers are getting much better about making those apps more engaging and easier to use.”

Along with apps becoming more engaging, the pandemic has increased demand, Haim said. 

“You have folks who have been receiving mental health treatment — but can no longer go to their clinician — maybe using mental health apps,” Haim said. “You [also] have folks who are experiencing new symptoms who would likely be interested in using those apps.” 

However, Haim does not think apps will end up replacing the support of mental health experts. 

“I think in some cases if you’ve maybe had some subtle mental health symptoms and you want to use an app to build some skills, I think that’s a great place to start,” Haim said. “But I don’t think apps are going to replace clinicians.”

General mental health counselors are featured on the app; however, it is one of the least-used features, Peterson said. 

“Our main target audience are youth … but genuinely anyone can use it,” Peterson said. “The main people who are using the app are ambitious high schoolers who are stressed with life or college students who just want to find a place of belonging and safety and relaxation.”

Toppen-Ryan said he finds himself using the app when he feels upset. 

“I’m actually an only child and living with a single parent right now, so it can be very lonely at times,” he said. “The app can sometimes help.” 

After experiencing the app, Toppen-Ryan became the director of finances for Magnify Wellness. 

Looking to continue Magnify Wellness’ success, the team started a GoFundMe page on Nov. 11 for their next project, exceeding their $350 goal by raising $790, he said. Toppen-Ryan predicts the fundraiser will reach $1,000 soon.

Peterson encourages those who are skeptical about new ideas to pursue them.

“I guarantee that someone out there needs you, like, someone out there really needs your innovation too,” Peterson said. “You should always try your best, and don’t let fear hold you back from doing something that’s really socially impactful to our community, because right now we really need it.” 

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