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Pride Month: Health apps can aid virtual access to mental health resources for the LGBTQIA+ community

Updated on: 02 July,2022 11:23 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Maitrai Agarwal | maitrai.agarwal@mid-day.com

Research has established that the prevalence of mental health conditions among LGBTQIA+ individuals is higher. Mid-Day Online spoke to the creator of a mobile application that aims to make mental health resources inclusive and accessible

Pride Month: Health apps can aid virtual access to mental health resources for the LGBTQIA+ community

Every year, June is observed as Pride Month to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community around the world. Representative Image. Pic/iStock

Developed in 2020, Evolve is a health application that helps users improve their mental well-being through interactive content based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The Indian application, with over 200,000 users, has a strong focus on LGBTQIA+ persons. Owing to its curated content specifically catering to the members of the community, Evolve is one of the featured apps on Google Play to celebrate Pride Month in India. Mid-Day Online spoke to Anshul Kamath, co-founder of Evolve to understand how applications can pave the pathway for inclusive health resources.

How critical is it for the LGBTQIA+ community to access mental health resources?

Numerous research studies have shown that any minority or marginalised group, including members of the LGBTQIA+ community, are more likely to experience poorer mental health. Therefore, it is extremely important for members of the community to have access to effective mental health solutions. And yet, it is a highly underserved segment in the mental health market. 

There is a need for more customised solutions for the community. However, there is a big gap between the mental health needs of members of the community and the availability of solutions. For example, even when it comes to therapists,many of them are not trained to understand the issues people from the community face. The number of queer-affirmative therapists , with whom people can feel safe and open up to them is extremely low. The same way, when it comes to digital mental health platforms and apps, most solutions are heteronormative and do not cater to the subtler needs of the community..

How important was it for you to make Evolve inclusive?

My co-founder Rohan Arora and I started Evolve in 2020 as a mental health app meant for all. However, over time, we realised that members of certain groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community had very different needs.To be truly effective, we had to become more inclusive in our approach.  Even though Evolve is an earlystage startup, diversity and inclusivity is a big part of our DNA. Our core team has members across different gender identities, sexualities and faiths.. During Pride Month last year (June 2021), we ran a few experiments on the Google Play Console testing out a more inclusive logo and branding. We noticed a big surge in our conversion rates and this trend continued even after Pride Month, helping us realise that members of the community were naturally gravitating towards our app. 

Also Read: Pride Month: How apps can provide virtual safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ community

Today, we’re possibly the only global mental health app that is LGBTQIA+ first and this is extremely important to us because while there are hundreds of apps for everyone, there is a huge dearth of solutions for the community. At Evolve, we offer curated content specifically for them, including interactive introspections on 'embracing your sexuality' and 'coming out to loved ones'.

 What is your process for creating queer-specific features?

At a foundation level, we have spent a lot of time on our UI/UX to ensure our app is queer-affirmative and can provide users a safe space where they can be vulnerable and feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings, without any judgement. We have done this by spending time with our users and queer-affirmative therapists to understand the preferred choice of language and words.

Whenever we launch new content or a feature on our platform, we first try and understand how an expert or members of the community solve that problem offline. For example, if we’re launching content around dealing with homophobia at home, we speak to several users who’ve experienced this and understand from them what they went through, to truly empathise with their pain points.

We also speak to queer-affirmative therapists to understand how they help clients in this situation, right from the kind of questions they ask, the choice or words and the techniques they use. We combine these insights with our own proprietary UI/UX, which allows us to translate a lot of these learnings into our virtual content. We’ve got an extremely loyal set of users who often come forward and ask us to involve them in anything new that we’re building. So, we use them as a beta testing group and take their feedback before releasing the content or feature to all our users. 

Also, Google Play has played a huge role in our growth story so far by actively recognising and promoting us to potential users. We have access to a world-class Developer Console where we can constantly run A|B test experiments and get insights on our audiences. That has helped us understand our users quicker and build a better product for them.

 In what distinct ways the queer talent on board contribute to the process of building resources for the community?

Love and empathy have always been key ingredients in our product right from Day 1. I am a firm believer that you can’t build a successful product for someone without truly empathising with their needs. And from that perspective, having members of the community on our core team has been essential for us to make this pivot. In fact, our user love and ratings on the Google Play Store have gone up post our pivot to an LGBTQIA+ first app.

Also Read: Sushant Divgikr speaks on the discrimination, prejudice faced by artistes from LGBTQIA+ community

How can mental health resources be made interactive in place of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to benefit people across the gender and sexuality spectrum?

When we started Evolve, most mental health apps had either meditations or similar content that was ‘one-way’. For users, this usually meant plugging in their headphones and consuming something. However, we’ve always been inspired by how good therapists, coaches and others conduct in-person sessions. I also had personal experience facilitating wellness workshops for thousands of individuals before starting Evolve. In all these sessions, the communication was never one-way. A good therapist or coach is a mere facilitator in the process, finally, the person or client always has the answers-- it’s for the expert to provide them with the right environment, space and structure to help them process their thoughts. This process is called ‘holding space’ and that’s been a big part of the user experience we provide our users on Evolve. Our sessions are interactive and allow users to explore and process their thoughts. We ask them the right questions an expert would and explain frameworks through audio or videos. Some of our sessions also have customised flows based on user input or selection. So, if there are 10 people who do the same session on Evolve, all 10 will come out of it with very different takeaways and reflections. 

Are the prompts and activities backed by evidence-based practices of psychotherapy?

We adopt various techniques of psychotherapy and integrate them into the product as and where needed. The ‘Explore your identity’ journey you’re referring to is one of the first journeys our users opt to do. Most users who would do this are still in the questioning phase where they’re trying to understand their gender identity or sexual orientation.  The most important thing for us was to provide an experience where users can safely explore themselves through a combination of being asked the right questions as well as absorbing information easily. Here we’ve focussed on adopting the technique of holding space for our users that every good therapist will use - i.e. being non-judgemental and creating a safe space to provide psychological safety as well as subtle positive reinforcement and self-acceptance. 

In some of the other journeys we have for the community, such as coming out to your loved ones ,we incorporate Dialectical Behaviour Therapy where we focus a lot on self-acceptance and mindfulness-based techniques. 

Also Read: The macro impact of microaggressions experienced by LGBTQIA+ individuals

What were the challenges you faced while developing Evolve’s queer-affirmative sessions?

When we decided to pivot towards being an LGBTQIA+ first app in January 2022, it was a big decision, and we knew we had a big learning curve ahead of us. We had to go back to the drawing board to build new user personas and begin to understand the mental health needs of the community, which are actually very different from the needs we were solving for earlier. For example, we’re currently working on building sessions for people who identify as asexual and we’re developing these with two of our users - one from the Philippines and one from the USA.

LGBTQIA+ individuals share sensitive information on the app. How safe is their data?

 Some of the benefits our users love are the fact that they don’t have to open up to another human being and there’s no chance of being judged in any way. Everything on our app is built around creating a safe space for our users. That’s our fundamental value proposition, particularly for members of the community who often have no one in their lives they can safely open up to. We respect any data that users enter on our app. The data is stored in a safe way on our servers and is not used for any purpose except if users choose to revisit their thoughts on the app. Users can also choose to delete their account, and in our next release, we’re making this feature even more prominent; at the click of a button,  a user can choose to delete all the personally identifiable data they may have shared with us.

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