Mental Health Care in Your Pocket

Journal to Save Your Life launches fundraiser for app development

For the past six years, Journal to Save Your Life has served hundreds of adolescents and young adults across the globe as a web-based program. Now, founder Holly Werstein plans to take her mental health initiative mobile.

Journal to Save Your Life founder Holly Werstein's #ButILived submission (Courtesy of Holly Werstein)

Werstein launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign in late July to support app development for Journal to Save Your Life (J2SYL), a free 52-week, trauma-informed mental health curriculum for people living with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Werstein said the free app version of J2SYL would revolutionize how we use technology to treat mental illness – and she hopes to raise $100,000 by spring to do so.

“No app currently has a year-long cumulative trauma-focused program on it,” said Werstein, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and alum of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Nursing. “So it’s a completely new way of using the actual app technology.”

You can download an app for just about anything. There are your mood calendars, meditation guides, pocket journals, and feel-good photo galleries. J2SYL’s app instead would roll all those features and more into one location, Werstein said. The app will feature J2SYL’s core cumulative program – cognitive behavioral therapy, life skills training, and therapeutic art – plus extra sections for gift giving, extra CBT training, and self-love letters, in which you write affirmations to yourself. As with the online version, J2SYL app users will fill out an initial assessment, and then complete each of the weekly prompts in order to unlock the next week. The user will also put together a time capsule at the beginning of the program that unlocks at week 48 to show the progress that’s been made.

So far, the web-based J2SYL curriculum has been incredibly successful among its users, Werstein said. When Werstein first founded J2SYL as a pilot in 2010, she expected to sign up 60 people  – instead, 350 people from 22 states and 10 different countries have enrolled. To date, close to 200 members have finished or are still completing the program. Many users have said that J2SYL has changed their lives by allowing them to put a label onto what they’re feeling and a way to manage their lives, Werstein said.

But accessing the web from a smartphone can sometimes be slow or difficult for many users, Werstein said. The app version of J2SYL is meant to solve connectivity issues by offering a native environment for users to work. It will make for a smoother experience – one that could be lifesaving for a depressed or agitated user who may have “tipped over” from not having easy access to J2SYL, she said. “Having something that’s smooth is super paramount to the type of work we want to do with people,” Werstein said.

“[The app will] help girls and guys express themselves more fully,” said Tina Schweiger, an Austin-based developer who is helping design the J2SYL app. “The app has better usability.”

Werstein hopes to launch the J2SYL app in time for South by Southwest in March. That, though, will depend on whether or not she reaches her fundraising goal in time. If not, then Werstein plans to unveil the app during the National Alliance for Mental Illness’ national convention in June.

Alongside the fundraiser, Werstein has launched a social media photo campaign to combat stigma around mental illness. Using the hashtag #ButILived, people are invited to post photos and essays about their experiences with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and other mental illnesses and how they’ve triumphed.

“It’s another way of hitting at that stigma, and having people come forward and speak their truth,” said Werstein, who now lives in Denver.

In a show of support, Werstein has submitted her own #ButILived photo. That’s because the Journal to Save Your Life founder lives with mental illness and trauma. Werstein was repeatedly victimized sexually throughout her childhood and teen years. In her 30s, she learned she has Bipolar II disorder, which is categorized by manic episodes followed by bouts of depression. When she created Journal to Save Your Life, she couldn’t bear to leave her house, and instead turned to online to find communities to connect to. Often, people assume she’s “fine” because she’s successful professionally. But mental illness doesn’t pick and choose, Werstein said. “Depression is so real.”

So has Journal to Save Your Life saved her life as it had others?

“Yes, yes, yes!” she answered. “I started it when I was not on medication and incredibly suicidal. Getting up and being able to work on something for other people when I didn’t feel like myself had enough value has absolutely saved my life for sure.”

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app, Journal to Save Your Life, J2SYL, Holly Wernstein

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