To combat the heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and isolation that many students have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Oregon has announced a partnership with two wellness apps that use positive psychology to help users improve their overall well-being and sense of social belonging.
WellTrack is meant to help users become more aware of their mental health and provides tools to help them identify and remedy the mental health problems they are having, according to the app’s website.
The second app UO partnered with, Nod, developed by social-innovation companies Grit Digital Health and Hopelab, is targeted specifically to college-aged people and aims to help users improve their social connections through offering research-backed tips and new ideas for social interaction, according to Hopelab’s website.
UO Director of Prevention Services Kerry Frazee said that the university decided to pursue the partnership with Nod after a 2019 study led by UO psychology professor Jennifer Pfeifer. During the study, which was part of the app’s development stage, Pfeifer surveyed 221 UO freshmen who volunteered to use the app for four weeks. The study found that the majority of the students identified as high risk for mental health problems reported increased feelings of belonging and decreased feelings of loneliness after using Nod.
Mariko Lin, the university’s assistant director of Counseling Services and senior staff psychologist, said WellTrack’s developers are affiliated with the company that runs the Counseling Center’s after-hours crisis support line. They contacted UO administrators about using WellTrack as a mental health resource for students, and Lin said that after watching their presentation about the app’s benefits, the university couldn’t refuse.
“We just thought, why not provide an additional resource beyond the individual therapy we would typically provide?” she said. “The more resources the merrier.”
Both apps are free for all UO students to use. The university does not receive any money from the developers for promoting the apps, but it does have a contract with WellTrack that allows students to use the app for free.
In a June 2020 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 75% of adults ages 18 to 24 reported at least one adverse mental health or behavioral symptom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While students’ use of counseling services on campus has remained mostly steady since last year, Lin said that the students she does see have reported higher rates of depression and anxiety than in years prior; she believes many more students struggle with their mental health than actually use the university’s services.
“We’re so many months into the pandemic now — that sense of isolation, disconnection, grief over what they’ve missed out on,” she said, “it has really taken a toll on students.”
Upon downloading WellTrack, users are prompted to take a “wellness assessment” meant to identify the degree of their symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Some of the app’s unique features include a “mood check” that allows users to examine their patterns of mood throughout the week, and a “zen room,” which provides sounds and videos to aid in relaxation and meditation, Lin said.
It also has a feature that allows students to give their therapists from the UO Counseling Center access to their WellTrack data, which she said can help initiate more meaningful discussions about the stressors affecting the student’s mental health.
Frazee said that Nod’s primary focus is to provide users with new ways to build social connections outside of the app. Ideally, students who have struggled to make friends in college will have an increased sense of confidence in their social lives after using Nod, and a wider range of tools to help them meet new people and form stronger friendships in the future, she said.
Aisha Ghorashian, a UO junior and a peer wellness coordinator at the Duck Nest, said she uses Nod’s tips to help strengthen friendships with people she already knows. She said that while making friends is easy for some, she believes it’s important to have a resource for students who may have a harder time building relationships, especially given the limited opportunities to meet new people during the pandemic.
“It’s all about reminding yourself how to make connections,” she said. “We’re taught when we’re kids that you need to go and put yourself out there and make friends, but I think we forget that as we get older and get deeper into our own ways.”
However, Ghorashian said she does wish that Nod had more social networking opportunities within the app itself. While the app offers users advice on how to connect with people, it does not actually allow users to interact with each other.
Lin and Frazee said that WellTrack and Nod can benefit anyone and that all students should give them a try. However, they also stressed that the apps are not meant to replace other types of therapy. Students with more severe clinical diagnoses should use them in conjunction with counseling and other forms of treatment, they said.
William Betts, a local psychiatric nurse practitioner and the founder of Betts Psychiatric in Eugene, said he supports the use of any app that helps people become more aware of their well-being, but cautioned that users should remember the apps are driven by algorithms that simply respond to their input. He said he has seen people become absorbed by apps similar to WellTrack and Nod without realizing that to truly improve their mental health, they must also utilize other types of therapy and actively work to build social connections.
“If people look at an app as the one-stop shop that’s going to solve all their problems, then I think they should rethink their position,” he said. “Apps give us a tool that can help point us in directions where we can seek help, or identify areas where we may want to seek help.”
Frazee said that while the university will monitor the apps’ efficacy among UO students, it will likely continue the partnership after normalcy has returned to campus. Data from the UO counseling center suggests that the events of the past year have taken a tremendous toll on students’ mental health, she said, but the fact that so many have attended school and passed their classes despite their struggles is reason enough to celebrate.
“We’ve seen some incredible resilience through the year,” Frazee said. “We’re all relying on different coping skills to survive this difficult time, and I think students should feel proud of the resilience they’ve demonstrated to be here today.”