By Rachel Robertson
Many students experience some rough adjustments during their freshman year, but for Alison Bowden it was more than a typical transition from home to college life.
“I live with a mental illness, and the last year and a half was really hard for me,” said Bowden, an undergraduate in electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State University.
Bowden was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during her first year of college and has been living with depression for six years. An estimated 4.4 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) sometime in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People with bipolar disorder have periods of intense emotion called manic or depressive episodes. Sometimes, such as in Bowden’s case, a manic episode can include hallucinations or delusions.
“This is the first time that mental illness has become a big part of my life, and I realized there are not a lot of resources to help people manage their mental health,” Bowden said.
But rather than sit back and wait for better resources, she decided to build an app containing all the features she would personally find useful. She enlisted the help of Houston Morgan, a friend and business communications major attending Arizona State University. The two had worked together on previous business projects when he was a student at Oregon State. They formed a startup company called Wellio: Bowden is developing the coding for the app while Houston is taking care of the finances and business development.
“Every single feature of the app is based on something that has happened to me,” Bowden said.
During her manic episodes, Bowden would sometimes have a “break in reality” and run out of the house, chasing something that her brain had concocted. Several times she ended up in the emergency room. After recovering, she realized an app that could let the hospital staff know about her condition would improve her chances of getting accurate treatment. So, she designed a function called “code red” to do just that.
Bowden says she can tell when a manic episode is starting and has enough time to activate the “code red” feature notifying a specific list of contacts that she is going into a manic state. The function also tracks her location, making it easier for people to find her. Finally, if she does end up in an emergency room, the data she entered about her medical condition can be automatically transferred to the electronic health records at the hospital.
Of course, it would be better if the “code red” situation could be avoided entirely; therefore, Wellio is equipped with other features to help people manage their illness well enough to avoid a crisis.
For someone who knows they need help but are not headed toward an emergency situation, there are two other features that are part of the crisis management section of the app: “crisis check” and “help.”
The “crisis check” feature leads the user to a PHQ-9 form, which measures the severity of depression with a series of questions like: “Over the past two weeks how often have you had little interest or pleasure in doing things?” Based on a numerical score calculated from the user’s responses, the app will suggest different actions to take. For a lower score it might suggest a breathing exercise, but for a higher score it could recommend a nearby walk-in center. Users who definitely know they need help can skip the form, and the “help” feature will lead them directly to resources located nearby.
Another section of the app will help the user identify situations that trigger symptoms with predictive logging.
“On the surface, it just looks like a basic tracker — a mood tracker, an activity tracker, and a symptom tracker — all combined into one. But under the hood, it’s a really cool neural net that learns from your behaviors,” Bowden said.
The third section of the app will be a cloud-based library of coping-skill exercises that will be continually expanded as more are developed. For the initial version, Bowden and Morgan are working with counselors to develop exercises based on therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.
“If you’re having a rough time or if you just need to calm down after a panic attack, these different coping skills will help you get through the day,” Bowden said.
Bowden and Morgan have been applying to entrepreneurship programs at both Oregon State and Arizona State to get as much help as possible through mentoring and financial support. At Oregon State, they placed third in the 2018 Next Great Startup competition and have been accepted to the OSU Advantage Accelerator. At Arizona State, they were finalists in the 2018 Venture Devils competition, where they won an Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative grant.
Their plan is to release the beta version in the winter of 2018 to 400 students at Oregon State and Arizona State. Then in April 2019, they will have a full version available on Android and Apple platforms for $9.99 a month. They also hope to partner with collegiate mental health programs so the service can be free to students.
“For the last six years, I’ve lived with mental illness, and understand how powerless it can make a person feel at times. Wellio is all about taking back that power,” Bowden said.
Photo: Johanna Carson