PBS documentary to feature Michigan-made software

A mobile app created by a local software company is set to be featured in an upcoming PBS documentary.

Ada-based Michigan Software Labs spent this summer designing and developing a mental health-focused app for Rutgers University, a leading public research institution. Known as Storm/breaker, the app will allow users to experience a mental health issue to better understand triggers and access coping mechanisms all from a research-based perspective.

Mark Johnson, co-founder and managing partner at Michigan Software Labs, said a call from a leading psychology expert at Rutgers began the collaboration.

“We got a call from Dr. Edward Selby, and he had a large donor who had some experience in their family with a mental health issue,” Johnson said. “The donor wanted to create an app to help with anxiety and depression and substance abuse.”

Selby, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializes in the research and treatment of suicidal and self-injurious behavior, personality disorders and eating disorders. He serves as an associate professor for Rutgers’ psychology department.

Selby was eager to pursue the donor’s request, and after coming across the Michigan Software Labs website, he decided to reach out to the team and learn more about their ability to interface with academic settings.

“I was corresponding with a few other companies at the time and (Michigan Software Labs) quickly rose to the top because of their genuine interest in the project, willingness to talk through project details extensively before committing, and meeting various team members who would go on to be highly enthusiastic in the success of the project,” he said.

For Selby, the vision for the app is to provide coping mechanisms in a readily obtainable format.

“The goal is to get easily accessible treatment protocols out to people in their daily lives where they will be more effective and can reach people with barriers to accessing traditional psychotherapy,” Selby said.

With Storm/breaker, users will be prompted to rate their mental health at different check-in times throughout the day to help them identify and better understand triggers for changing emotions. Progress can be viewed on a daily, weekly, monthly or yearly basis.

The platform also provides a customizable toolkit to help users manage difficult emotional states during daily life. During periods of distress, for example, users are able to select a calming tool and go through a process to mitigate those feelings.

In addition to the accessibility, something that sets this app apart is the emphasis on psychological research.

“The idea was to try to get some more research-based applications out there,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of really good ones that are kind of mood-based or that monitor behaviors, but they’re not really based on any significant research in psychology.”

Johnson said Rutgers will utilize the app’s data to continuously improve mechanisms and outcomes for those who use the platform.

Currently, the app is in its beta testing stage and being piloted by a small group of people. The goal is a national launch, and an upcoming opportunity will likely provide more exposure.

According to Johnson and Selby, Storm/breaker is set to be featured in a PBS documentary as part of an ongoing mental health-focused series. The series, Healthy Minds with Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, aims to remove the stigma of mental illness.

Specifically, the documentaries are created with the goal of humanizing common psychiatric conditions through personal stories in addition to providing information on new approaches, treatments and research.

Johnson said PBS contacted Selby after learning about his research. The intention behind this particular episode, he said, is to highlight where work is happening to find solutions.

Filming for the documentary is currently in process. Though the title was not yet disclosed at the time of publication, Selby said the episode is scheduled to air in May 2023 for Mental Health Awareness Month.

Throughout this project, Johnson said he has recognized the importance of thinking creatively around how technology can provide solutions within the mental health space.

“This is just one of the many ways that I think technology can be used to help solve issues that humanity faces,” he said. “This is really our first project in terms of this sort of space that’s more research-based and we’re excited to be a part of this.”

In addition to Johnson, the project was completed by Michigan Software Labs team members Pete Steen, Kourtney Williams, Sarah Hendrickson, Ryan Vreeke and Kyle Ronayne.

This story can be found in the Nov. 28 issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.

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