UNC Health Launches Mental Health App for COVID Responders

July 14, 2020
‘Heroes Health’ initiative gets support from Google Cloud, Alphabet, and mental health nonprofit One Mind

The University of North Carolina School of Medicine and UNC Health have launched an initiative and mobile phone app, Heroes Health, to help support the mental health of first responders and healthcare workers during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The app is available through the App Store/Google Play Store in the United States free of charge to any first responder, healthcare worker and their organizations.

For individual healthcare workers, the app delivers weekly 5- to 10-minute mental health self-assessments and displays symptom summary reports and trends over time. It also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasizing services that are free or low-cost to healthcare workers.

The initiative was founded by UNC School of Medicine physician Samuel McLean, M.D., Research Vice-Chair in the Department of Anesthesiology and an attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine. As a practicing emergency physician and COVID unit worker, and COVID survivor who contracted COVID and infected two of his family members, McLean understands firsthand the great challenges COVID workers face. 

“First responders and healthcare workers are facing a lot of challenges right now,” McLean said in a statement. “There is the personal risk of severe illness or death. Much worse, there is the anxiety and fear of infecting loved ones. This is an even greater challenge for first responders or health workers who live with someone particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. It’s important to give first responders and healthcare workers a simple, quick way to regularly check in on their mental health and immediately find resources. It is also important to provide organizations with tools that help empower them to care for each other.”

The app evaluates symptoms in domains such as sleep, stress, and anxiety/worry, and sadness or depression. Immediately after completing the survey, workers can view a summary report of their symptoms, and trends in their symptoms over time, and can click on links to get immediate support and other mental health resources — for instance, to improve sleep and stress. This resource list focuses on resources that are either free or offered at reduced costs to healthcare workers, and there are also lists of free or discounted goods and services to healthcare workers. Heroes Health said it receives no financial benefit or support from the goods or services listed.

For healthcare organizations who partner with the Heroes Health initiative, the app provides a way to perform proactive worker outreach and the aggregate data necessary to identify times when more worker support is needed. Anonymous group-level summaries and trends in the mental health of workers in the organization, for different types of workers and units, are shared with unit and organizational leaders each week to help them identify times/organizational areas that would benefit from additional support.

The Heroes Health app was developed by the UNC Institute for Trauma Recovery and Google Cloud, along with volunteers from across Alphabet, with support from donors including One Mind, the Rockefeller Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, and the Lauder Foundation.

McLean had experience performing smartphone-based mental health assessments from thousands of trauma survivors. He contacted a close collaborator, Ron Kessler, Ph.D., McNeil Family Professor at Harvard Medical School, and the two of them designed a brief smartphone-based assessment, using well-validated questionnaires, to assess key domains affecting COVID workers, including sleep, stress, anxiety/worry, and sadness and depressive symptoms. McLean also enlisted a team of other collaborators who worked to develop the project, including:

• Kerry Ressler, MD, Ph.D., James and Patricia Poitras Chair in Psychiatry at Harvard University Christopher Jones, MD, a frontline emergency physician and head of clinical research at Cooper University Health;

• Francesca Beaudoin, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Brown University Karestan Koenen, PhD, Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Harvard University School of Public Health; and

• Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., Meymandi Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.

The team at Google Cloud, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, X and volunteers from across Alphabet and Boston Technology Corp. supported the Heroes Health Initiative, donating engineering resources to develop the app using the MyStudies on Google Cloud offering.

National mental health and brain health research nonprofit One Mind has supported McLean’s ongoing trauma research work.  One Mind also has been helping to raise financial support for the project.

“Healthcare workers are working long hours in highly contagious environments, often without adequate safety equipment, and are expected to make life-saving decisions while deprioritizing their own health and the health of their families,” said One Mind President Brandon Staglin, in a statement. “These demands place an enormous amount of stress on the physical and mental health of Covid-19 healthcare workers. Heroes Health will provide mental health support for our front-line caregivers and is an important demonstration of how private sector innovation is essential in our response to the pandemic.”