Teenagers spend plenty of time on their phones – and now that technology is playing a major part in helping them to deal with rising mental health issues.

Researchers for A Better Start National Science Challenge have developed innovative new digital tools to address adolescents’ wellbeing, helping them to navigate stress and supporting them during tough times – all through an app they can download free on their phone or smart device.

A Better Start’s Resilient Teens research team has won a major contract with the Ministry of Health to make the app – called Headstrong – available to all New Zealand young people. It is funded from the $1.9 billion Wellbeing Budget in response to He Ara Oranga, the Government Inquiry into Mental Health.

Dr Karolina Stasiak, who has co-led development of the app with the Resilient Teens team, says young people can choose from three individual courses, which all offer different experiences. The main focus for all three is helping teenagers to build core strategies for wellbeing and balance.

Building these kinds of skills will help address the rates of teen mental health issues which have skyrocketed over the past decade, she says. Between 2007 and 2019, the number of young people struggling with mental health issues almost doubled in New Zealand – and that was before the pandemic hit.

Getting young people help early is critical, says Dr Stasiak, and digital technology can play a positive role in making it easier for them to seek support and find coping strategies.

“Teenagers spend an enormous amount of time on screens and phones. They go online to look for information to do with health and wellbeing and it’s really important that we have quality evidence-based tools and strategies that have gone through the rigour of academic research, authored by clinical psychologists.”

Important, too, that the tools are free and easy to access – unlike many international offerings that often charge hefty fees – and that they are culturally applicable for New Zealand young people.

“Ensuring that rangatahi can access specific and culturally applicable activities is important, given we know that a strong cultural identity supports wellbeing,” says A Better Start’s Resilient Teens theme leader Dr Tania Cargo.

The Headstrong app has three chatbot support options: Aroha – stress support; Foundations – a personal trainer for the mind using cognitive behavioural therapy tools; and Stress Detox – a 21-day course specifically addressing stress management techniques. Users can choose one or all of these courses, and they can also select one of several chatbot guides – characters with names and different looks – who they can have a conversation with and relate to.

  • Users can choose their own personal guide characters, with names and different looks, who they can have a conversation with and relate to

The courses are structured differently – Aroha offers a deep dive, binge experience with all of the content at your fingertips, while Foundations offers strategies around managing your emotions, your mood, stress, relationships and conflict, and is structured in a way that you have a kōrero each day with your chosen chatbot guide. Stress Detox is the most structured of the three courses, dealing with feelings and emotions on week one, before progressing to identifying and challenging anxious thoughts, then onto behaviours and actions, and then looking at how you can do things differently in your life to conquer stress.

Dr Stasiak says the Headstrong courses were created after a lot of consultation with young people about what they wanted from an app.

“We started this project by getting young people to tell us ‘how do you want support from your phone?’ If we’re creating something on your phone, what would it look like? Unlike the younger teens who wanted something that looks like a game, older adolescents want something a bit more concrete – ‘when I’m having a problem how do I deal with it?’ Hence the creation of these chatbot courses.”

Evidence shows that young people are more at risk of adverse psychological, social, health, economic and educational effects post-disasters, and Covid-19 lockdowns and associated impacts have without doubt hit New Zealand teens hard.

“That’s why we have developed Headstrong – we have to be doing things to reverse this tide of distress; prevent it from happening in the first place by acting early,” says Dr Stasiak.

“Counsellors who are working in schools – their role used to be to sit down with a young person and go through a relationship breakdown or bullying. They are now holding young people who are suicidal, or who have other serious issues around mental health. Their usual work, which was sitting down with someone who has had a rough moment in their lives and who needs some support… they can’t do that because their attention and time is spent dealing with those who are critical. So we need other tools to serve this need.

“It’s not all about mental health either – the chatbots actually include stuff about relationships, tips to look after your finances; it’s got humour and inspirational things. It’s the stuff that matters to young people, rather than the stuff that matters to us [adults].”

A nationwide marketing campaign to promote Headstrong will begin later this month to ensure that everyone can access the support they need, in particular young Māori and Pasifika communities where there is a disproportionate need.

“We’re offering a new tool and we need to build people’s trust in it,” says Dr Stasiak. “That’s with young people, but the gatekeepers – schools, families, communities, youth workers, sports clubs – are also important to us, so that the adults in young people’s lives know that this is available, that they endorse it, and they can introduce it to a young person in need.”


  • For more information go to headstrong.org.nz
  • Headstrong can be downloaded free on most smart devices through the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. It has been developed with A Better Start’s Resilient Teens team and IT partners Kekeno Tech and Rush Digital.
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