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Alongside Builds Mental Health App for Students, by Students

Students are playing a key role in tweaking a mobile app that offers 24/7 advice, reassurances, and links to activities or informational videos for teens, and it's relieving some overworked school counselors.

Mental health face icons, with the one on the left in red making a sad face, the middle one in yellow making a neutral face, and the one on the right in green making a happy face.
When creating a mobile tool to provide 24/7 mental health support for teens, developers of the Alongside app enlisted their target audience to make the most-needed enhancements.

According to the company website, professionals who specialize in adolescent mental health care helped build the artificial intelligence-powered tool in 2022, with interactive technology that allows users to talk about school-related stress, relationships or other problems via open-ended prompts and pull-down menus. The chatbot, which appears as a cartoon llama, provides advice, reassurances, or links to videos or activities containing additional useful information. At the beginning of any session, users are informed that the conversations will remain confidential unless the student intimates that they might harm themselves or others. In those situations, the app sends an alert to school personnel.

Indira Moparthi, a junior at Round Rock High School in Texas, worked as a summer intern for Alongside prior to the start of the 2023-2024 academic year. She said she was initially skeptical of a chatbot talking about a topic as sensitive as mental health.

“I doubt[ed] how they [could] handle that,” Moparthi recalled, adding that she changed her mind quickly. “But it is so cool. All of the activities are specifically tailored to every scenario, and it’s crazy how many scenarios that it’s programmed for. So, it feels very authentic. … It’s very real. At the heart of it was a human.”

Over the course of seven weeks, Moparthi and other interns tested the technology with prompts while learning how to build their own chat modules. They advised the company to make the tool more fun to use by adding gamification, mood trackers, a journal for students to track their progress, an expansion of the llama’s knowledge of cultural and societal norms, more colors to the app’s presentation, and tweaks in tone to make the app more welcoming and engaging to young people.

Moparthi said all of those suggestions materialized in the tool’s refinement process. After seven weeks, she signed on for a yearlong internship in which she now serves on Alongside’s Student Advisor Panel.

Moparthi’s school has not contracted with Alongside to provide the app to students, but others in Texas have. Alongside CEO Jay Goyal said in an email to Government Technology that the app is being used in 15 school districts across the country, and there were 15 interns who worked on the project from the states of Texas, Washington, California, North Carolina, New Jersey and Indiana.

Bowie Middle School in Irving, near Dallas, tested Alongside at the end of the previous academic year and rolled it out again in September, according to Principal Anabel Ibarra. The school has three counselors to serve grades six through eight, constituting 790 students, about half of whom have cellphones. In the past month, the counselors noted their workload has been more manageable, and feedback from students has been positive.

“Girls say it’s better than Snapchat AI,” Ibarra said. “That’s one of the highest compliments I’ve heard.”

She said in one instance, appropriate school personnel were notified after the app informed them a distraught student’s older sibling had died by suicide.

“That’s something we really should have known about before,” Ibarra said, adding that while most conversations do not trigger an alert, school counselors and administrators can access a dashboard that identifies the most common types of problems or situations discussed, and helps them remain aware of underlying issues within their student population.

Bowie has bilingual counselors for the 50-plus students who speak little or no English, but some neighboring districts do not, making Alongside’s multiple language functions useful in diverse states like Texas.

“Those kids still need a resource,” Ibarra said.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.