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California launches new mental health-based apps for families and youth

Erick Trevino | April 23, 2024

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The two apps BrightLife and Soluna are mental health apps that aim to help kids to young adults. (Nova Blanco-Rico)

Blanca Paniagua was nervous. 

The young adult was set to speak at a webinar about one of CalHope’s new experimental apps. 

“I saw how many participants there (were)  and I was like, I’m about to use the app so it could calm me down,” said Paniagua. 

But Paniagua had some strategies from the app — including exercises to deal with anxiety. 

According to a study conducted by the California Department of Public Health, the state saw a 20% increase in suicides for young people ages 10 to 18 after the pandemic. To deal with the rising mental health crisis, the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) has launched two new app-based programs, BrightLife Kids and Soluna, to be a first response resource for children and participants up to age 25.

“I never really knew how to express myself,” said Esther Verdugo, another Soluna participant who had experienced anxiety from her busy life before she started using the built-in journaling exercises. “The people around me always expressed themselves that I didn’t know how to share my own emotions so I shared them through journaling, and all of this I found through the . . . app.”

The release of both apps is part of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health, which launched in 2022 with a proposed budget of $4.7 billion. The two apps are free and are focused on providing a variety of resources. 

The BrightLife Kids app was introduced to California children under the age of 13 to be able to access mental health resources with their parents and guardians. Children can navigate the app under their guidance and request family or one-on-one coaching. 

The Soluna app is made for California teens and young adults from the ages of 13 to 25, covering a range of topics based on Soluna’s research of interviewing over 300 California youth on what matters to them, including body image, discovering identity, anxiety and depression.

These topics are laid out in the app as a series of constellations, with each star in the constellation featuring a different exercise such as: articles, podcasts, videos and quizzes all built into the app. One of the exercises, a meditative breathing exercise, was made in partnership with the Calm app, Apple’s 2017 App of the Year.

 “It turns out that the needs for the younger kids are quite different than the needs for older kids and young adults,” said Amrita Sehgal, vice president of business operations at Brightline, the company that made BrightLife Kids. “Especially for younger kids, there’s a big need to involve parents and caregivers and families into their care; versus for older kids, folks may want to interact more independently.”

For many Californians, getting help for mental health issues hasn’t always been easy. Dr. Beth Pausic, vice president of clinical excellence & safety at Kooth Digital Health, said, “When you look at US healthcare at the moment, there’s a provider shortage, there’s not enough therapists, there’s not even enough psychiatrists.” This can be especially difficult for teenagers that are of color or LGBTQ.

Because the core belief is that mental health should be an ongoing conversation that is happening not just when problems arise, the apps focus primarily on prevention and early intervention. The individual coaching sessions are not meant to replace therapists or other traditional forms of behavioral health, but act as a first-response method.

“Mental health just needs to be a conversation that we’re having and not in a way that trends when something bad happens in the news,” Pausic said. “Covid put a spotlight on mental health, but there’s always been a mental health crisis. We just haven’t been talking about it.”

For kids and teens interested in using the services, they can be downloaded on the Apple App Store; and BrightLife Kids on the Google PlayStore with Soluna soon to follow.

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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