Coping with anxiety: Jennifer Parkhouse has an app for that

SFU alumna and graduate student is crowdfunding and developing an app to make cognitive behavioural therapy accessible and free.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Parkhouse

Fast facts  

    • Name: Jennifer Parkhouse
    • Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
    • Department affiliation: Masters of Science in Statistics, in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science
    • Business name: CBT Anxiety Aid
    • Hometown: North Vancouver, BC
    • Hobbies: Jennifer enjoys horseback riding, dog training, soccer, and gardening
    • Fun fact: She has a dog named Rascal Flatts who she trains in dog agility.

Jennifer and I have been corresponding back and forth for over a week, going over both her time at SFU and her current projects. Because of Jennifer’s long journey with anxiety, it has taken her about the same amount of time to complete her masters degree as it did to complete her undergraduate degree. Far from being discouraged, Jennifer has an idea to help make life easier for those in a similar boat.

Her app is the CBT Anxiety Aid app. Though the first version will be coded for Android devices, she hopes to make the app available on Apple devices as well — and it will be free.

Jennifer is building the app based on her own experience working with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based psychological treatment to help manage anxiety, depression, addiction, anger problems, and a slew of other mental health disorders and their symptoms. It works by identifying and changing the ways of thinking and behaving that negatively affect our lives. Jennifer’s app includes a four-pronged approach to managing anxiety and other mental health problems, including:

  1. An in-app calendar to track medication, activity, and coping mechanisms.
  2. A journal where users can input their thoughts, of two different kinds: generic, and specific to certain fears. The app will then be able to suggest coping devices, and encourage better thinking habits.
  3. A section where users can input fears, so that the app can break them down into smaller and more manageable fears thanks to behavioural therapy suggestions.  
  4. A database of coping mechanisms that users can access when needed.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five people in Canada every year will experience a mental health problem or illness.  Despite how common mental illness is, treatment is much harder to come by.

“I have been struggling with anxiety and agoraphobia for over two years now,” Jennifer says. “I have tried many apps and have been left wanting. Therefore, I decided to create my own app based on my personal experience getting treated using CBT by a trained psychologist as this is something that many people don’t get to experience. I wanted to capture as much of this experience as I could within the app.”

Jennifer’s advice for those of us who can relate?

“Talk to someone early on, the sooner you get help the better. Even if you only talk to your best friend or parent you don’t have to to this alone. You are stronger than you think.”

She also insists on making sure to prioritize your own well-being. “I would say that you come first, not your schooling. There is no shame in taking time off to take care of yourself.”

Still, Jennifer acknowledges that treatment isn’t always easy to come by — either because of the financial realities of seeking help, the fact that many medical plans don’t cover treatment fully (if at all), or the stigma and social barriers that may stop individuals from reaching out. She hopes to make her app as accessible as possible to provide a helping hand to anyone suffering from anxiety or another illness that can be treated by CBT.

“This app is unlike any on the market today, the only other app that comes close lacks a lot of the user input that my app offers and it doesn’t allow for a calendar or history to track your progress or keep track of medication. My app will be an all-in-one CBT treatment unlike the other apps…” Jennifer says.

This is an impressive feat, especially considering that this is Jennifer’s first app. Before getting around to grad school, Jennifer followed her long-time interest in mathematics to SFU. She earned both a bachelors in science with a major in applied mathematics and a minor in computing science, and a graduate diploma in financial engineering from the Beedie School of Business. Now, she’s pursuing a masters of science in statistics.

“There is a lot more freedom doing graduate school and the sense of comradery within the department is great. We often do department activities with all the grad students,” Jennifer says.

To students who may be considering grad school, Jennifer suggests thinking long-term. “Think about what job or field you want to go into and then consider what grad program fits that goal.”

She goes on: “After completing my undergraduate degree I was looking into grad school and I had done some summer research assistant jobs within the stats department and really enjoyed myself and found a prof that I liked working with so it was a natural fit for me.”

Though the statistics aspect of her degree doesn’t really apply to her app, she has experience in building websites, including the original cost-of-living calculator for SFU graduate students. However, Jennifer tells me that: “There is a whole new program to building an app. It is like learning a new language. There are some similarities and rules that both follow, but overall it is completely different.”

Jennifer is fundraising for the app through kickstarter and starsomegood fundraisers ( both of which are fully funded) and the CBT Anxiety Aid’s website. She hopes that the app, currently in development, will be ready to go by the end of summer.

“What we need now is to get the word out and have people look over the mock-ups and offer advice as to what they would like to see changed or added to the app,” Jennifer says.

 

Editor’s note: SFU students can also access Health and Counselling services. You can make an appointment online or call to book an appointment at 778-782-4615 (Burnaby campus) or 778-782-5200 (Vancouver campus) or 778-782-5200 (Surrey campus).

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or need to see a counsellor immediately due to a sudden loss or critical incident, notify the front desk of the clinic when you arrive.

Health and Counselling also recommends the Crisis Centre of BC, which you can call toll free and 24 hours a day at 1-800-784-2433. You can also chat with them online at www.crisiscentrechat.ca  

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