By Julio Heleno Gomes
A mobile app that offers different strategies to deal with everyday stressful situations can help a cross-section of young people. For those struggling with adverse childhood experiences, the JoyPop app is particularly useful, says a Lakehead University researcher.
“What we found is that the benefits, in terms of building better coping skills, were especially prominent for youths who had experienced things like abuse or neglect at home. They actually saw better improvement in terms of their emotion regulation skills when they were using the app,” says Dr. Aislin Mushquash, an assistant professor in Psychology.
Mushquash and her team from the Coping Research Lab just completed a study of the resilience intervention tool called JoyPop. Developed by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton and Clearbridge Mobile, the smartphone app offers a menu of items to help de-stress the mind and body, such as deep breathing exercises, journalling or connecting to a support system through a Circle of Trust.
“The features were designed to support youth in better regulating their emotions and their experiences,” Mushquash explains. “They allow users to understand what they’re feeling in the moment, to track their mood and then suggest features or activities to use.
“It allows users to get out of their head and focus on something in the moment, if they’re feeling overwhelmed by anything that’s going on in their personal life or at school.”
The project to evaluate the app involved 156 participants enrolled at Lakehead, who would use it for at least 15 minutes a day over the course of a month. The study centred on first-year students because of the potentially challenging experiences they would face at this crucial stage in their lives.
“It’s a brand new experience for them, for opportunities but also for potential stressful situations,” Mushquash notes. “So we wanted to evaluate whether the JoyPop app could be used as a tool to better support youth as they navigate the transition to university.”
Graduate student Angela MacIsaac was attracted by this novel tool that helps people tap into coping skills, manage their emotions and create positive experiences.
I was intrigued by the way a smartphone app allows you to combine various strategies into one intervention,” says MacIsaac, who’s in her first year of Lakehead’s PhD program in clinical psychology. “Using the JoyPop app improved emotion regulation and also reduced depression symptoms,” and the more that individuals used it the more benefits they saw.
“It helps youth exercise agency in proactively taking care of their own well-being. It allows them to practice strategies and skills that can help with self-regulation,” MacIsaac says.
The research team also included PhD student Shakira Mohammed and undergraduate student Elizabeth Grassia, as well as undergraduate volunteer research assistants Haleigh Kearns, Alacia Tshilombo, Melissa Beaucage, Laija Beaulieu, Kaitlyn Kotala and Mary Cassano.
Funding for the study was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Having shown the app is useful for young people heading off to university who come from different backgrounds, including those dealing with lingering childhood challenges, the next step is to see if the app can be incorporated into other settings.
“Now that we have these data and the positive result suggesting this is helpful for youth, we’re looking at how the JoyPop app may be helpful for youth who are seeking mental health services in the community,” Mushquash says.
She has partnered with Children’s Centre Thunder Bay and Dilico Anishinabek Family Care to determine if youth coming to them could benefit from using the JoyPop app.
“What we’ll be evaluating is to see if using the app while waiting for services leads to better abilities to manage emotions and improvement in mental health symptoms,” she says. “And from the service side, does it prepare youth better to access counselling? If youth are using the app to tap into their emotions, to think about how they’ve been feeling for a few weeks before seeing a counsellor, they may be in a better position to benefit from the counselling services.”
With funding from the Thunder Bay Community Foundation, this project will continue over the course of a year.
The JoyPop app is available for purchase from the iTunes store. Organizations interested in using and evaluating the app can contact Mushquash directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.
Portrait photo: Dr. Aislin Mushquash is an assistant professor in Lakehead’s department of Psychology.
Pic 2 (group of 3 people): Dr. Aislin Mushquash, centre, discusses research on the JoyPop app with Lakehead students Elizabeth Grassia, left, and Shakira Mohammed.