Psych student’s app to help ‘thousands’ with anxiety, depression

Jeff Perron wants to help more people than he ever could all by himself.

The Ottawa man finished an undergrad in psychology, earned a master’s in business administration and found work in human resources. He thought that would be his career.

But he felt like he wasn’t doing enough.

“I want to do something that helps people,” said Perron, 29. “It was a good job, I enjoyed it, but at the end of the day I felt like I was a middleman between actually getting people some kind of help.”

So, he returned to school for a PhD in clinical psychology so he could work face-to-face with patients coping with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Then, frustrated by a lack of accessible services for depression and anxiety patients and spurred by years’ worth of existing research in web-based education in cognitive behavioural therapy, Perron started working on an app called TruReach Health — now set for release on Apple and Android devices on Sept. 9 — which gives patients a way to take on-the-spot psychotherapy lessons wherever they are.

“I can do the traditional therapy and see people one-on-one, or I can help potentially thousands if not more people at once,” he thought.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that’s designed to treat depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses by solving current problems and reducing the patient’s negative thinking and behaviours. It’s a skill-building exercise that helps patients help themselves.

Modelled after popular apps like Headspace and Duolingo — the former offers meditation sessions, while the latter teaches people new languages — TrueReach Health users start with lesson one, then complete that to unlock lesson two, and so on. The app also sends periodic tips and reminders, and users can note how they felt after each session using the “thought journal.”

The app has garnered the support of Roxanne Anderson, chair of the Royal Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research, and will be piloted at the Royal Ottawa by a team run by psychiatrist Dr. Simon Hatcher.

Perron said an Ontario university will also use as part of its student counselling services starting in September, and he’d like continue to have it used at other schools, where students have been found to be greatly affected by mental health problems.

In 2013, an American College Health Association survey found that 30 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students’ academic efforts are negatively affected by anxiety, while 19 per cent are hindered by depression. Meanwhile, student health plan providers such as Green Shield Canada and Studentcare Networks find that antidepressants regularly rank high among the most commonly claimed prescription categories.

For many people, especially teens and young adults, who are stressed, anxious or depressed and can’t always get the help they need, the TruReach Health app can be the “first line of defence,” said Perron.

The TruReach Health app

The TruReach Health app TRUREACH HEALTH

“If you’re my doctor and you say check this out, by the time I leave the office I’m already downloading it.”

The first 12 lessons are free, while the last six lessons cost $7.99. Perron said revenues from the extra lessons will go toward developing new programs for the app that will address other mental illnesses such as eating disorders, social anxiety or even ADHD.

Perron said the app probably won’t be right for everyone, but he said it will offer some immediate help between professional appointments, or an extra lifeline for people who can’t properly access or afford full treatment.

“This isn’t a replacement for therapy or medication, but it’s a new option that you have,” Perron said. “It’s to give people something where there’s nothing.”

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