How might we use digital tech to intervene early to improve young people’s anxiety and depression using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

By designing and building an app in partnership with Auckland University researchers which provides free 24/7 access for Aotearoa’s youth to access mental health support.


University of Auckland


Design & development of the MVP product



Health & wellbeing

Public sector

"My phone is my news, my music, my friends, it counts my steps and tells me when to stand up, and mental health is part of that. Phones are a delivery mechanism.”

Karolina Stasiak


Research Psychologist, Department of Psychological Medicine

The project

In 2018, estimates suggested that 79,000 secondary school students had experienced psychological distress, with 82% of that 79,000 not seeking any help or support. 1 in 3 of this age group spend over 4 hours a day on a digital device.

The University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences engaged RUSH to explore new ways to leverage teenager’s mobile phone time to support their mental wellbeing. The result was a project called Headstrong, the features of which were combined with COVID-19 wellbeing advice and launched as Aroha.



Proof of Concept

UX Design

UI Design

Machine Learning

Minimum Viable Product

Native Application Development

Cloud / Systems Integration

Quality Assurance & Testing


Of the target age group spend over 4 hours a day on a digital device


Focussed user interviews with teenagers


Characters created to represent the diversity of rangatahi

Sketches showing 4 initial illustrations for Headstrong character Aroha

Talk to the experts

We began by interviewing five inspirational experts in the fields of psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy and young people’s mental health. We learned that talking therapies and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have proven successful in helping youth improve their mental wellbeing, and they need to be equipped with effective evidence-based tools they can use.

Interviews with 12 Auckland teenagers gave us insights into what it is like to be a teenager today. A recurring theme was that they wanted someone they could confide in without fear of social consequences in their life. They wanted that to be someone who understood their culture, understood the stresses of being a teenager, and was someone they could relate to, and look up to.

From the preliminary research we ran a series of workshops that resulted in the creation of a new digital platform that enabled our clients to develop their own friendly and trustworthy chatbots for young people to interact with. To create something authentic for our teenage audience, we developed an appealing visual identity and personalities for the chatbots and the Headstrong program.

Architecture diagram alongside a screenshot of the Headstrong app
"The Headstrong architecture illustrates the feasibility of creating a domain-focused authoring environment for e-therapy. Further, the architecture allows rapid deployment to field studies and sufficient flexibility to support interventions of different lengths and for different target audiences."

Karolina Stasiak


Research Psychologist, Department of Psychological Medicine

Screenshots of the Headstrong app

Digital friendship

With Headstrong, we built a platform for creating personified chatbots, available 24/7 on Facebook Messenger. We created a group of teenage ‘personal trainers’, unique avatars users could interact with. Each was made to be as relatable as possible for young people in Aotearoa. Not super athletes or cool kids, just relatable friends teenagers could feel comfortable with. One of these avatars was Aroha, who became the face of the project when it was adapted by the Auckland University clinical experts to address the mental stresses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is how it works: A chatbot simulates a conversation and allows people to interact with a digital guide as if they were communicating with a real person. The app was designed to make it easy and engaging for young people to learn techniques for supporting mental health and wellbeing via short interactions with the chatbot. Characters use stories, motivational whakatauki (proverbs), audio tracks, infographics, mini games and more to make the content more relatable.

Not a silver bullet

Within Headstrong, rangatahi can choose one or more chatbot courses, including Paparahi Foundations, quick tips, and Hiki Taumahatanga Stress Detox.

While the characters can behave like a friend, it is important to note the limits and how this was built into the design. There are constraints to how much support Headstrong can provide for a young person in severe distress. When a risk keyword or phrase is detected in a message, the app can ask if real life assistance is needed. The contact information of relevant mental health services is provided, and while personal data is private and secure, external support is just a click away.

Images of the Headstrong app screen in dark mode

Give it a try

Download the app to see Headstrong in action.

Download the app to see Headstrong in action.

Get it on Google PlayDownload on the App Store


▪ Best Awards 2020 | Silver - Public Good, Bronze - Digital Product, Bronze - UX Empowering