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UWE-designed anxiety app reaches half a million downloads

24 November 2015

A free self-help app for anxiety, SAM app, conceived and co-designed by experts at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has been downloaded by over 500,000 users from more than 100 countries since its launch in July 2013. It has been in the top 100 health and fitness apps in 85 countries and received thousands of positive reviews.

With around one in four people experiencing moderate mental health problems at some point in their lives, the app is providing much needed assistance in an easily accessible format.

The SAM app helps users to cope and deal with common symptoms associated with mild to moderate anxiety. It enables users to monitor their anxiety levels and visualise an anxiety profile over time, also to discover and apply self-help techniques via multimedia mini-games. SAM app also features an anonymous ‘social cloud’ so that the user community can share experience and advice.

The result of an interdisciplinary project, SAM app was developed by psychologists, computer and engineering scientists at UWE Bristol and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, working in collaboration with teams of students, mental health practitioners at UWE, in the NHS and in private practice and external app development company MyOxygen.

Phil Topham, Counselling Psychologist and project lead, said: “Following positive evaluations of the prototype app by students, the team asked for and were granted funding by the University to develop a working version for generic anxiety, to be globally available.

“We conceived and developed SAM as a psycho-educational facility that would help people learn to manage their anxiety. Its self-help options are derived from research and good practice in psychological therapies; they include guidance on physical and mental relaxation, healthy lifestyle and behaviour change.

“We also aimed to achieve high standards of therapeutic usability: to carefully consider design and language so that SAM was experienced as friendly, optimistic and credible.

“SAM is not equivalent to face-to-face therapy and we always recommend that professional help is sought for serious concerns about anxiety and depression. However, we believe that one of its strengths is that it may limit the demand for professional help by some users while encouraging others to seek help after a positive experience of using SAM.”

Associate Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly, who contributed expertise in developing the app’s usability, said: “The success of the SAM app is down to a very user friendly interface and includes content embedded in research by psychologists that is known to be helpful to people. To ensure a high level of usability we developed the app using an iterative user-centred design process, for example spending considerable effort getting feedback on the icon designs before selecting the best concepts. There are a variety of tips and techniques available and people can add the ones that work for them best to their personal toolkit.

“The result is amazing – it is testament to excellent interdisciplinary team working which includes around 60 UWE students and staff working together.

“Most heartening has been well over 1,000 five star reviews and positive comments. One comment that really caught my eye was a first introduction from one person who joined the social cloud on the app saying ‘I’m new’ - this was quickly followed up by one responder on the cloud saying ‘Welcome to the SAM family’. It summarises the support that many of the users give each other.”

Paul Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science and Creative Technology, worked on the social network aspects of the app development and emphasised that teamwork with students had played an essential part in the SAM app progress. He said: “When we started the project we looked to develop a tool as part of a student project. Students were challenged with a real life scenario to develop a tool to help their fellow students cope with anxiety or panic attacks.

“I helped to develop the social cloud where users interact around a safe community to offer each other support. We are all blown away by the popularity of the app and it gives real validation to our collaboration. We will be carrying out further studies to evaluate its uptake and to improve and develop the content.”

Glyn Williams, from UWE's wellbeing service, said: “Around one in four 18 to 25 year olds suffer from mental health problems at some point and I find that by the time they seek counselling they feel quite isolated and often believe that they are the only one suffering. The beauty of the SAM app is that as it is so easily accessed on a smartphone platform it is available to students and others at the time when they need help. I particularly like the ‘today’s reflection’ – a positive thought like ‘Have I got any interests or activities that I enjoy?’ that act as a gentle prompt.”

Professor Steve West, UWE Vice Chancellor, said: “This project exemplifies what UWE Bristol is good at. The global reach reflects our ambition to demonstrate research with impact and the uptake for the SAM app is an excellent example showing how we are achieving this. We work together with our students, each other and external agencies to come up with ideas that have relevance, that are useful and that respond to problems.

“The SAM app is a project that the team and the university are justifiably proud of – this is an incredible result but it doesn’t stop here. The team will continue to refine the ideas and to develop the app so that it maintains its relevance and responds to developments in app technology and presentation.”

UWE-designed anxiety app reaches half a million downloads
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