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This Start-up Wants to Battle Mental Illness Through Gaming

Modern times call for modern measures

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BY Jared Carl Millan - 06 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

According to a report by the World Health Organization, Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions comprise more than half of the yearly global suicides, and if that isn’t scary enough, a huge chunk of them are teenage suicides. And in the age of social media where everything is magnified, constant connectivity does nothing to assuage this alarming symptom.

“As a teenager what stresses me out the most is my self-image,” says 19-year-old creative writing major Nina Pineda from Ateneo de Manila University. “In the age of social media where people have an idea of you or you have an ‘ideal’ self, not being able to live up to it can be really damaging. It really does mess up with your mental health.”

Even more frustrating is that even in this day and age, discourse regarding mental illness is still taboo, especially in Asia where stoicism is better than outward suffering. This makes identifying and preventing destructive behavior due to poor mental health a challenge.

Psychologist Jamie Chiu can attest to that.

Chiu knows firsthand what mental illness does to teens. Born in Hong Kong, she moved to Ghana as a small child and then moved yet again when she was 14, this time in Australia.

“I was going through depression and anxiety, but I hid it well, and nobody really knew. I had average grades, I coasted by, but I was miserable, and I missed out on a lot. All because nobody really knew,” she says.

Not wanting anyone to suffer as she did, she and co-founder Mark Altosaar now run a Hong Kong-based start-up called LULIO that aims to reach at-risk teens through technology and gaming.

In the beginning, Chui built an in-school program for teens and tested it in schools in her native Hong Kong. She then created and sold youth development programs for secondary schools.

“We helped many low-income schools by matching them up with training psychologists, who needed hours, at low cost, and delivered these programs to them,” Chiu says.

Although the programs worked, she became frustrated at how they administered the surveys, using the good old pen and paper and outdated questions. In addition, they weren't getting the data they needed.

It was around this time that she met Altosaar. “At the time, our idea was to create video games that could detect depression,” Chiu says. They do this by gamifying the whole data acquisition part of the survey to make teens more comfortable.

Eventually, LULIO’s scope grew from detection of mental illness in teens to providing schools with a tool that could help them identify which students need extra help. With this growth came a new name: The Brightly Project.

“We changed our name to better reflect our vision of bright futures for all young people,” Chui says.

Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, it's not always easy to acquire the necessary data. In fact, Chiu says it takes a person an average of ten years before they seek professional help. She wants to change this very dynamic with The Brightly Project.

“We want to reverse that model,” she says. “Rather than waiting for a young person to reach out for help, we’re reversing it, and bringing the support and care to those who need it.”

And with the help of their CTO Cole Bailey, The Brightly Project utilizes machine learning to capture rich data that is otherwise unavailable.

“We use a conversational UI chatbot-style to converse with the students to make it more interesting and keep their attention,” she says, adding that they give the results to both the school and student, though the results are packaged differently for students. “[T]eenagers are not interested in how resilient they are. So we re-frame the student-side to make it more teen-friendly.”

It seems they're off to a great start. In 2016, Forbes named Chui as part of the 30 Under 30 list. More importantly, the schools themselves are keen to participate in this crusade to raise awareness of mental illness among teens.

Later this year, the Brightly Project is expanding beyond Asia. “We are doing a pilot with one of the top public schools in South Australia, and the principal is so genuinely caring of her students. She knows that it’s not about academic grades, but it’s about whether they have learnt the skills and have the resources to deal with the tough times and persevere to achieve their goals,” Chui says.