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Student-designed wellbeing app first-of-its-kind at UK University

Students from the University of East Anglia (UEA) have launched a first-of-its-kind wellbeing app to help their peers understand their emotions, develop coping strategies, and access the support they need, in time for the new University term.

The app called “OpenUpUEA” features a mood tracker to help students understand their fluctuating emotions, by noting them through nine emojis, with relevant services highlighted according to their response.

Also included is an A-Z of support services offered by UEA, the Students’ Union and by other local organisations, along with a help button for direct access to the Police, Samaritans, GP services, Nightline or campus security.

It’s thought to be the first app launched by a UK University which combines both a mood tracker and details of the services on offer, and the team are interested in working with other Universities, with scope for it to also be adapted for high schools and colleges too.

The students who are from the UEA’s School of Computer Sciences, School of Psychology and the Norwich Business School worked with psychology experts Dr Laura Biggart and Dr Kamena Henshaw to develop and test the app.

James Mason, who is a 22 year-old UEA Computer Science student from Norfolk was part of the development team. He said: "Universities need to consider that some students are less likely to seek face-to-face support in this digital age, and more likely to use online tools. Digital services should be expanded and made available alongside current systems, reaching out to as many students as possible.

“Helping to develop the app has been a fantastic experience. Mental wellbeing is something I feel very strongly about and I’m pleased to have been able to use my skills to help bring such a brilliant concept to life.”

In 2015, a report by the National Union of Students outlined that student anxiety is linked to a number of factors such as transitioning from home, managing independence and living skills, financial worries, relationship worries, degree worries, family concerns, and physical and mental health issues. 

The strategies promoted through the app are based around Dr Biggart’s ESRC-funded research which explored emotional resilience in social work. The research identified six key coping strategies to adopt when things get stressful, ‘plan ahead’, ‘reframe’, ‘exercise’, ‘tackle the problem’, ‘seek support’ and ‘modify mood’.

Dr Biggart, said: “Anxiety is a natural emotion that we all feel now and again to. Not all student support needs to be focused on mental health, as the majority of student worries are non-clinical and if addressed can reduce an accumulating anxiety load.

“It’s really important that we can clearly signpost students to practical and emotional support as early as we can. If students can solve issues early on, it can help prevent them building up into more serious problems. We wanted to do this in a way that’s easily accessible, which is why we chose an app.”

Dr Henshaw added: “The interactive campus map is an important feature because we found that one major cause of anxiety among new students is being unable to find their way around campus. The map indicates exactly where you are, with the buildings clearly labelled.”

The app has been funded by UEA’s Research and Innovation app development competition which allows students to develop their own or their academic’s app ideas.

The app has undergone rigorous testing by students who were asked to download and use it, before completing a questionnaire and taking part in focus groups to provide feedback on its usability and the suggested features.

UEA students will continue to develop the app, based on initial feedback, with the potential for budgeting and planning advice, emotional resilience and study support to be added, as well as advice around students’ future plans for when they graduate.

The app is an additional tool to the mental health support Student Support Services already provide, which includes wellbeing advice sessions, an exercise referral scheme, resilience and wellbeing workshops and talking therapies.

The app is primarily been aimed at students, but it is also available to UEA staff to have information about UEA support at their fingertips. It’s available now in time for the new term on 24 September.