Mental Health Expenditure Rises in SA and This App Could Be A Test For Solution

By  |  July 30, 2021

African parents like nothing better than having their children score straight “A”s. One of the most viral threads on Quora is a question on “Why are African parents so strict, no matter where in the world they live?” And many respondents to that question concur on the fact that African and Asian parents put more pressure on their kids to perform well in schools than their Western counterparts. 

African students have been consistently making it to top institutions from the likes of Havard, Yale, Princeton to Oxford, Cambridge. And in her controversial book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” – Yale Law School professor Amy Chua looks at how certain ethnic groups like the Chinese, Jews, Nigerians see more academic and professional success than others. And one of the criteria for success mentioned in the book is the behaviour of parents; how parents play a vital role from a child’s early years. 

But in the quest for academic achievement does emotional intelligence get underprized? And is it a less widely acquired skill in our society. A 2018 study on suicide ideation and attempts among students in South Africa; shows a correlation between suicide risk and anger-related control problems, low self-esteem, perceived stress and unmet school goals.  

For It’sOK founder Cody Gordon he was in high school when his father died. And as he struggled to cope with his death – Cody found himself surprised with the emotions of grief, anxiety, pain and even anger that overtook him. It was while navigating this personal crisis that he felt there was a larger need for emotional skills to be taught to kids, in the same manner, they were taught maths, swimming or cycling.

It’s OK Founders Cody Gordon, Michael Dukes

And so in January 2019, Cody Gordon with his friend Michael Dukes started developing — It’s OK App for school kids. The startup claims to have turned profitable in the first year of operation and now has a roster of South African schools, including IVA Global, Centennial Schools, King David Primary School Victory Park signed up for its services. Currently in use by more than 1,000 students from grade 1 to 12, Gordon says he aims to have by 2022 100 schools signed on and 100,000 plus students using his app.

Isn’t emotional intelligence too large a concept for students in lower classes to relate to?

“You’d be surprised but it isn’t. Even kids in lower grades can identify feelings of happiness and sadness. And also why they are feeling that way with a little help.”

“When my father died, I started acting out and engaging in self-destructive behaviour. I was at a crossroads then. I could go either way. I could take personal responsibility for my actions and try to regulate my emotions or let myself go further down on my road to a personal hell. I started studying the lives of successful people and I realised that they constantly strived for personal growth; they tried to make their current skillset better,” says Gordon. “And then I wondered why was it so difficult for me? Why wasn’t this something that was taught to me in school?”

Was the decision to be completely online post or pre-pandemic?

“So it was in Jan 2019 that  I and my CTO Michael Dukes decided to create an emotional support system for the average student. From the beginning, we decided it would be online and not offline. At that time we were thinking of scalability; and how one cannot scale beyond a certain bandwidth if there is also the need for a physical presence, brick-and-mortar clinics.”

“Of course in Jan 2019, we couldn’t have predicted the pandemic. But lucky for us, we were ahead of the curve during the pandemic. And then the lockdowns happened and students were forced to stay at home; and suddenly everyone — policymakers, the media, schools, parents — were talking about loneliness, vulnerability and support systems. All the issues we had been wanting to highlight came into sharper focus with the pandemic, bringing the spotlight dead centre on mental health.”

So how does the app work? 

“The It’sOk app provides three profiles to its users – a school‌ ‌profile,‌ ‌a‌ ‌student‌ ‌profile‌ ‌, and‌ ‌a‌ ‌parent‌ ‌profile.‌ The app helps students articulate how they are feeling by clicking on a range of emotions; they then learn about the spectrum of emotions they are feeling and try to document their journey.‌ And students also have the option to seek and get help through the app from a teacher or counsellor. Parents can also access how their ward is feeling – and if they are seeing certain patterns of negative emotions consistently arise – then they can take steps towards tackling it. The school also has access to student emotions – but not at a granular level; the school cannot see what an individual student has said or expressed (via emoticons). But overall, the school can see how a certain class or age group is feeling and whether they need to have more fun activities to break up the monotony of everyday school life or the stress of an upcoming exam. The one trend that we seem more commonly is fear and anxiety before homework and exams.”

Overall the objective is to make sure our students are well-rounded individuals. That while academic and sports achievements are to be prized, the path to being a consistent winner is emotional intelligence and self-awareness. We provide education, tools and much more to create a holistic individual and an effective contributor to society.

And on the other hand – we provide schools with a platform to learn about the emotions that are being experienced in their school. We do this in many different ways and ultimately give the school the ability to ensure that time, energy and resources are spent addressing the correct areas. We provide the school with the ability to make decisions from a mental health perspective.” 

How does the app work when the child is a victim? and when the child is the bully?

“Say a child is a victim of bullying then the app helps the child reach out to a safe adult – that could be a counsellor, school teacher. We help a student focus on themselves. Focus on their emotions. The app asks – “How can you develop? How you are feeling?” Start that process of self-awareness – which can take them to the next step of how to deal with a problem.” 

“Or the child is bullying someone else. Then the app helps the student in correcting their behaviour – and ensuring anonymity if they need it. Because children aren’t happy when they engage in bullying – there is always fear, insecurity, a need to feel powerful and in control. Once the child identifies these feelings. Then the child can take corrective measures.”

“The app addresses a range of issues from gender, sexuality to even pimples. For pre-teens hitting puberty can mean them grappling with a range of emotions – not all of which they would be comfortable sharing with a parent or even counsellor. But still, by journaling their thoughts and using our tools they can find the answers themselves to some of the internal conflicts they face. The option to remain anonymous or use the app in ghost-mode can also help students from vulnerable backgrounds – say if it is their parents engaging in the abuse.”

Given mobile phone addiction is a real problem, do children need another reason to be on the phone? 

“In terms of mobile addiction, we feel our app will prove an equaliser. On Instagram, Facebook, there is this constant comparison among kids; the need to be cooler; more accepted, more popular. This leads to an increase in anxiety, depression, etc. But with our app – the focus is on how one feels. Since mobiles are here to stay, we hope that this will prove to be technology for the good.”

One of our teachers gave us feedback post-app usage that — “I think in this modern world we get swept away by external influences, and it’s been great for the students to stop and reflect…and I’ve noticed a change over days in terms of them getting to know who they are and how they feel.” We have also partnered to provide devices for students from underprivileged backgrounds – we didn’t step into this assuming every child will have a mobile phone. Also sometimes the device is shared with siblings and parents. So having separate profiles help in ensuring privacy and trust of the child.”

Every child is a teacher is an old proverb, so what are the things you learnt from kids? 

“For our team tech, it is an enormous advantage the ease and comfort with which the younger generation adapts to mobile phones. My CTO Michael Dukes did a lot of testing with kids in the initial days to get their feedback. Even now we test with kids new features or designs. ” 

A 2016-17 study found that South Africa’s public mental health expenditure was USD 615.3 million, representing 5% of the country’s total public health budget. And with the Covid-19 crisis, the expenditure is likely only to increase and not decrease. So where do you see this market heading and what are your long-term objectives? 

“There is certainly a huge market and potential for our product. Currently, we are in talks with investors. Our revenue model is currently from the schools and we will be keeping it that way. We hope that the app can improve emotional literacy rates across a broader spectrum. Of more than 3,000 words in English to describe human emotions, even adults use only 3 or 4 on average to describe how they feel. So this skill we teach students – to identify and speak about their emotions might prove invaluable for their adult life.”

Featured Image: Pixabay

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