CADILLAC — Going online could help Northern Michigan residents manage their mental health.
Northern Lakes Community Mental Health is providing people in Crawford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford counties with access to an online mental health tracking tool called MyStrength.
It’s totally free to users, and there are some signs it’s working, said Keith Huggett, chief information officer for Northern Lakes Community Mental Health. Even people who wouldn’t normally qualify for services from the organization because they make too much money can use it.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services funds Northern Lakes’ usage of MyStrength through a grant. The app is clinically proven and evidence-based, Huggett said.
Twenty-five of the organization’s clients participated in a pilot program last year to test MyStrength.
“It actually turned out really well,” said Ashley McDugald, a case manager for the specialized team at Northern Lakes that tries to keep people with severe mental illness active in the community.
MyStrength, which can be accessed from a desktop browser or through a smartphone app, is “mental health-lite,” Huggett said.
MyStrength features a number of tracking features, ranging from sleep to mood. It also helps you track your habits and goals and teaches you techniques for managing your mental health.
Many of the people who used it in the pilot program last year didn’t have much experience with technology, McDugald said. Navigating it was the toughest part, but coaching helped. People who used it consistently said they would use it again, even volunteering to teach other people how to use it, she said.
Some even wanted to buy the tablets on which the app was installed.
“We thought that was a big win,” Huggett said.
Northern Lakes kicked off a campaign to attract more users in April because the grant requires goal setting.
Now the organization is trying to hit 400 users by Sept. 30 and had 331 as of June, Huggett said.
The grant funds the program for just two years. Huggett wants to keep it around for even longer.
“I am working hard to convince our organization this is a good tool and we’ll find the money to sustain it,” he said.
The organization has been sending “trainers” out into the community to talk about the service.
Dean Vivian, a board member at Northern Lakes, spoke to the Missaukee County Board of Commissioners in July about the app.
Northern Lakes is also talking to local police departments about MyStrength.
Officers often encounter people who are struggling but can’t be referred to services, Huggett said. Now officers can hand out cards with information about accessing MyStrength, he said.
Huggett himself is a user, logging his own mental and behavioral health. Through the app, he set a goal to drink more water and has been bringing a water bottle to work with him.
McDugald uses the app as well. She has two accounts: one is professional with resources clinicians can use with clients. The other is personal and helps her track her own emotional health.
Even as a mental health professional who knows how to manage stress, “Sometimes you need a little bit of a wake-up call,” McDugald said.
The app helps you to spot trends in your mental health, McDugald said. It makes abstract concepts concrete.
It’s hard to ignore the connection between sleep and mood when it’s on the screen in front of you.
When you first log in to MyStrength, the app prompts you to evaluate your emotional health for the day. You can also tell the app to ask you about five other measures, such as alcohol use, anxiety, depression, drug use, sleep, exercise, mania and pain, among others.
After you rate those factors, you decide what you want to do that day on the app.
You might choose to learn about various mental health issues.
Education is one of the key features of the app.
“We’re aiming for folks that want to learn more and eliminate preconceived notions,” Huggett said.
Through videos with captions, MyStrength users can learn about various mental health disorders and treatments and practices that help other people feel better.
One video might explain how a breathing exercise can help you stave off anxiety.
Another might walk you through a guided meditation.
The app also gives you the option of setting goals and habits for yourself. You can also select memes that inspire you and follow other users (though your personal information is protected, Huggett said).
Very motivated people with mild to moderate cases of a depression or anxiety who don’t have private insurance or Medicaid might be able to use MyStrength in lieu of therapy, McDugald said.
Some therapists are including MyStrength in safety plans for clients, Huggett said. Clients in crisis can use MyStrength video exercises or activities, he said.
It’s a “virtual gym for the mind,” Huggett said.
But for the app to help, you have to be ready to make changes, McDugald said.
“If you’re doing this to please the computer, you’re not in the right stage of change to make something happen,” she said.
Still, the app could be a good first step for people who know something’s not right but aren’t ready for therapy, McDugald said. The right information helps people prepare to make changes, she said.