Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Two Minnesota teens create new app to address youth mental health crisis

Two girls sitting next to each other
Taara Verma and Siena Pradhan are the creators of the mental health app 'Feel Now' which is targeted towards young people.
Courtesy of Taara Verma

By now, you’re probably well aware that teenagers in the U.S. are facing a full-fledged mental health crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a “national state of emergency” for children’s mental health.

Two Minnesota teens had an idea to get ahead of mental health crises by helping other young people become more aware of their feelings.

Taara Verma and Siena Pradhan joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to talk about Feel Now, the app they launched earlier this year.

I want to hear why you were thinking about helping teens with their emotional well being in the first place.

Verma: This idea came to me after my own personal experiences in therapy and one technique that we would use in my sessions would be to start with identifying what emotions I was feeling right then. I felt this to be a pretty grounding experience, and just helped me become more in tune with my emotions and thus was able to help me figure out what to do with them.

I thought that if this was useful for me, I’m sure it would be useful to lots of other teens who unfortunately may not have had the privilege of receiving mental health care that I have.

Why create the app?

Pradhan: I think that, especially when you’re targeting your audience towards teenagers, apps are an efficient way to get this out. So one of the main features of the app is that it sends a notification at any point in the day, and then you can check in at that exact moment.

We’re making sure that this app is really targeted towards teenagers and making sure that they are checking in with themselves, and kind of using those like social media aspects to do good.

Let me see if I got this right. So, if I’m feeling sad, you choose that emotion on the app?

Pradhan: What we did is we actually want to get a little bit more specific than just I’m feeling sad, but what type of sad exactly are you feeling? There are options like if you’re feeling grief, anger, not just anger, disgusted with yourself, isolated — things like that.

It’s a little bit more specific than just you’re feeling bad, you’re feeling good. So really honing in on what specifically are you feeling and maybe thinking about what that’s stemming from.

How can your friends help you?

Verma: That was one feature that we were thinking about, you can have friends on the app. However, the distinction here compared to other apps is that you don’t share your specific emotions with your friends.

Oftentimes, what we’ve seen, is that there can be an unhealthy dependence between friends on their mental health and we didn’t want teenagers to potentially feel the burden of other people's emotions, especially every day for potentially multiple friends.

We actually don’t have a sharing emotions feature. We were hoping that when someone’s more in tune with their own emotions they can take some steps for themselves and share with friends but not with the app directly.

If you needed to have additional help, how might one want to reach out?

Pradhan: The friends on the app also just shows that you do have a support system. So you can always reach out to the friends you have on the app, reach out to your parents, reach out to a school counselor if you are feeling these sad or angry or anxious emotions are persisting over a long amount of time. We strongly recommend that you do.

But for the purposes of the app, it’s really just to get in tune with yourself and hold yourself accountable. So making sure that your friends are checking in with themselves, but not necessarily knowing what their feeling was how we wanted to go about that, especially since sometimes I don't exactly want to share everything I’m feeling with my friends but I just want to make sure that they’re there for me, and they know that I am taking care of myself.

Verma: Oftentimes I feel like people only get help once it’s — not too late — but once their mental health has gotten bad enough where it would have been beneficial for them to get help earlier.

And so what we’re hoping is if you find persistent sadness, persistent and if you notice that pattern, that that’s maybe something that can lead to more preventive intervention, rather than like almost waiting until it’s too late. So we hope that that will allow individuals to seek that help, you know, sooner rather than later.

How might this app maybe work to ease some of the stigma with mental health?

Pradhan: I think that the best way to ease that stigma is to really bring it up in everyday life and not have it be some sort of taboo topic and not speak to have to be some sort of like big deal.

This app just really aims for you to just check in with yourself every single day, and that repetitive nature and making sure that you’re really like sticking to that and doing it for yourself is the best way that I think that we can reduce the stigma.

If everyone is just checking in with themselves, that can greatly benefit like mental health in general and also just maybe reduce the stigma of being sad, because that happens sometimes to everyone. But as long as it’s not a persistent sadness, then that’s alright to feel those feelings.

You’ve stressed that this app is important, especially for communities of color. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Verma: Both of us are from South Asian families and I feel like there is a lot of stigma around, you know, negative emotions and that stigma tends to manifest itself in terms of just denial. But we were kind of hoping is that it starts with yourself and then each person is able to kind of check in with their emotions.

My parents often will ask me, how was your day, how are you feeling and I think those conversations can always can often be awkward or uncomfortable. But hopefully, if this becomes a more routine practice, then we can kind of avoid some of that awkwardness and we can have more productive family discussion about emotions.

How’s it been going? What’s the reaction? What are you hearing?

Pradhan: It’s going great. We have over almost 7000 downloads, I think on the app store right now. And that’s spanning over six continents.

Verma: We have several users in Burkina Faso. We have users obviously in Australia, India, Nepal, some countries in East Asia, Mexico — we have countries all over the world. I think it’s nearly 6900 across Google Play Store and app store.

I think the majority of those are coming from App Store downloads, but it's been really cool to see the app kind of progress and spread.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

For more mental health resources visit Call to Mind’s website, APM’s initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: By now, you're probably well aware that teenagers in this country are facing a full-fledged mental health crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association have declared a national state of emergency for children's mental health. Two teens had an idea about getting ahead of mental health crises by helping other young people become more aware of their feelings.

Tara Verma is a high school senior in Edina, and she's here with her creative partner Siena Pradhan, who's in Massachusetts. They launched the app called Feel Now earlier this year. Tara and Siena, welcome.

TARA VERMA: Hi. Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: Tara, thank you for being-- both of you, thanks for being here. I appreciate it. You launch this app. I got to see it in person. It's pretty slick. Before I ask you, though, about the ins and outs, I want to hear why you were thinking about helping teens with their emotional well-being, in the first place. Tara, do you want to take that?

TARA VERMA: Yeah, so, first, thank you so much for giving us this opportunity. So this idea came to me after my own personal experiences in therapy. And one technique that we would use in my sessions would be to start with identifying what emotions I was feeling right then.

And I felt this to be a pretty grounding experience and just helped me become more in tune with my emotions and thus, was able to help me then figure out what to do with them. And so I thought that if this was useful for me, I'm sure it would be useful to lots of other teams who, unfortunately, may not have had the privilege of receiving mental health care that I did.

INTERVIEWER: And Siena, why create the app? Is that just an easier way to get this out to folks?

TARA VERMA: Yeah. I think that, especially when you're targeting your audience towards teenagers, apps-- people are always around their phone. It's an easy, efficient way to get this out and also, make sure that people are continuously using the app. So one of the main features of the app is that it sends a notification at any point in the day. And then you can check in at that exact moment. And so we're making sure that this app is really targeted towards teenagers and making sure that they are checking in with themselves and using those social media aspects to do good for teenagers.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so let me see if I've got this right. And then, Tara, join in if you want. So if I'm feeling sad, let's just say I feel sad. You choose that emotion, right? And then you're just naming how you're feeling? So you're aware of that, right?

TARA VERMA: Yes. So what we did is we actually wanted to get a little bit more specific than just, I'm feeling sad. But what type of sad exactly are you feeling? So there are options, like you're feeling grief. You're feeling anger, but you're not just feeling anger. You're feeling disgusted with yourself. You're feeling isolated, things like that, where it's a little bit more specific than just you're feeling bad, you're feeling good; and so really honing in on what, specifically, are you feeling and maybe thinking about what that's stemming from.

INTERVIEWER: Got it. Tara, how can your friends help you? So if you name your emotion, can you ask for help from others?

TARA VERMA: So actually, that was one feature that we were thinking about. And you can have friends on the app. However, the distinction here, compared to other apps, is that you don't share your specific emotions with your friends. Because oftentimes, what we've seen is that there can be an unhealthy dependence between friends on their mental health. And we didn't want teenagers to potentially feel the burden of other people's emotions, especially every day for potentially multiple friends.

So we actually don't have a sharing emotions feature. We're hoping that when someone's more in tune with their own emotions, they can take some steps for themselves. And they can share those emotions, obviously, with friends, but not via the app directly.

INTERVIEWER: Sure, That makes sense, not to be burdened by some other people's emotions. But if you needed to have additional help, how might one want to reach out?

SIENA PRADHAN: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Siena or--

SIENA PRADHAN: So yeah, I can answer that one.

INTERVIEWER: Sure.

SIENA PRADHAN: So the friends on the app also just shows that you do have a support system. So you can always reach out to the friends you have on the app, reach out to your parents, reach out to a school counselor, if you are feeling these sad or angry or anxious emotions are persisting over a long amount of time. And we strongly recommend that you do.

But for the purposes of the app, it's really just to get in tune with yourself and hold yourself accountable. And so making sure that your friends are checking in with themselves, but not necessarily knowing what they're feeling was how we wanted to go about that, especially since sometimes, I don't exactly want to share everything I'm feeling with my friends. But I just want to make sure that they are there for me and they know that I am like taking care of myself. And so that's what the aim of the app was supposed to be.

INTERVIEWER: You've also--

TARA VERMA: And in terms of--

INTERVIEWER: Go ahead.

TARA VERMA: Oh, sorry. You go.

INTERVIEWER: No, go ahead, Tara. Go ahead.

TARA VERMA: OK. So what we were also thinking about in terms of getting help is oftentimes, I feel like people only get help once it's not too late, but once their mental health has gotten bad enough where it would have been beneficial for them to get help earlier. And so what we're hoping is what Siena was saying. If you find persistent sadness, persistent anxiety that-- obviously, these emotions do happen to all of us.

But if you notice that pattern, that that's maybe something that can lead to more preventive intervention, rather than almost waiting until it's too late. And so we hope that that will allow individuals to seek that help sooner rather than later.

INTERVIEWER: OK, yeah. So I'm wondering here about-- there is so much stigma still today around mental health issues, right? How might this app maybe work to ease some of that stigma? Siena, what do you think of that?

SIENA PRADHAN: I think that the best way to ease that stigma is to really bring it up in everyday life and not have it be some sort of taboo topic and not have to be some sort of big deal, but more of this app just really aims for you to just check in with yourself every single day. And that repetitive nature and making sure that you're really sticking to that and doing it for yourself is the best way that, I think, that we can reduce the stigma.

If everyone is just checking in with themselves, that can greatly benefit like mental health, in general, and also, just maybe reduce that stigma of being sad. Because that happens sometimes to everyone. But as long as it's not a persistent sadness, as Tara mentioned earlier, then that's all right to feel those feelings.

INTERVIEWER: Tara, you've stressed that this app is important especially for communities of color. Tell me a little bit more about that.

TARA VERMA: Yeah, so coming both of us from South Asian families, I feel like there is a lot of stigma around negative emotions. And that stigma tends to manifest itself in terms of just denial. But we were hoping, is that if it starts with yourself-- and maybe parents are using the app, too, siblings, is that if each person is able to check in with their emotions, that that can hopefully make discussions about our emotions easier.

My parents often will ask me, how was your day? How are you feeling? And I think those conversations can often be awkward or uncomfortable. But hopefully, if this becomes a more routine practice, then we can avoid some of that awkwardness, and we can have more productive family and family discussion about emotions. And that can help with conflict and other things like that, too.

INTERVIEWER: Sure. So final question for you both, how has it been going? I mean, how are the downloads? What's the uptake on it? What's the reaction? What are you hearing?

TARA VERMA: Yeah, so we're actually--

SIENA PRADHAN: It's going great, yeah. So it's going great. We have over-- almost 7,000 downloads, I think, on the App Store right now. And it's spanning over six continents. I think Tara has a couple more detailed stats about which countries those are, which we found really interesting, though.

TARA VERMA: Yes, we have several users in Burkina Faso. We have users, obviously, in Australia, India, Nepal, some countries in East Asia, Mexico. I don't know. We have countries all over the world. I think it's nearly 6,900 across Google Play Store and App Store. I think the majority of those are coming from App Store downloads. But it's been really cool to see the app progress and spread.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. Well, that is really impressive. Congratulations to you both.

SIENA PRADHAN: Thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: And thanks for taking the time to talk with me. All best. All best in the future. Thank you so much.

TARA VERMA: Thank you so much for having us.

SIENA PRADHAN: Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: We've been talking to high school seniors Tara Verma, from Edina, and Siena Pradhan, from Massachusetts. If you or someone, by the way, you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, you can always call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

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