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Youth mental health help is now just a tap away
BrightLife Kids
California’s new statewide Soluna and BrightLife Kids youth mental health apps are available to download free on mobile devices

California youth and their families seeking mental health help will now find resources just a tap away with the statewide launch of two free mobile apps this month.

Their creators say two Valley counties helped bring them into fruition.

Soluna and BrightLife Kids, both available to download and use at no cost, offer live coaching, peer support, assessment tools, crisis services and more to the state’s 13 million youth under the age of 25. The web-based apps are part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s multi-year $4.6 billion Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative to address the ongoing mental health crisis among California’s youngest population.

The two apps are separated by age group, with Soluna for youth ages 13 to 25 and BrightLife Kids for 12 and under. The California Department of Health Care Services and its CalHOPE program developed the platforms with digital mental health companies Kooth and Brightline.

Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties played a pivotal role in their development, as young residents of both regions were the first to access the Soluna app (then called CalHOPE Youth) last year.  In late October the state beta launched in the Valley counties before rolling them out for all residents at the start of this year. 

“Today is an exciting day because in a world where it is hard for young people to get the kind of care and service they need in behavioral health and wellness, California is taking a very important step forward to provide a 24/7, all-the-time-with-you platform for these young people to be able to use to access a whole wide range of services,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, in a virtual press conference announcing the app launch Tuesday.

Even before the pandemic, California youth reported increased levels of anxiety and depression. Rates among children increased 70% between 2016 and 2020, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services and National Survey of Children’s Health. 

California reported the biggest jump in mental health issues for youth across all 50 states during that time period. 

Also between 2019 and 2021, California Health Interview Survey showed that a third of the state’s adolescent population experienced “serious psychological distress.” That includes a troubling 20% increase in adolescent suicides.

Why Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties were selected

The increase in demand for youth services has been compounded by a shortage of behavioral health workers, both nationally and across California. In the Valley, the need is particularly acute. San Joaquin County has the lowest ratio of licensed psychiatrists and psychologists in the state, according to a report from the California Health Care Foundation.

Officials from the state Department of Health Care Services said that, along with several other factors, led them to soft launch the Kooth-developed app for teens and young adults in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties late last year. DHCS representatives said the geography, demographics and population sizes of the two counties also made them fertile ground for the beta launch.

During the test period, DHCS reported some 3,063 downloads of Kooth’s Soluna app with 2,381 accounts created. Developers partnered with several schools and youth-based organizations across the counties to help encourage adoption of the apps, including the Stanislaus and San Joaquin county offices of education, as well as Modesto Junior College, California State University, Stanislaus and others.

“The soft launch in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties allowed Kooth to test several key capabilities while receiving live user feedback. They also tested new content, tools, and live events to determine what resonated most with users, ultimately leading to Soluna app features,” said DHCS Media Relations Manager Anthony Cava in an email response. 

BrightLife Kids did not conduct a soft launch because the company already provides mental health services in California, Cava said.

Statewide mental health apps provide coaching, peer support

Both apps provide their services free of cost to California youth and families regardless of income level, health insurance coverage and immigration status. According to DHCS, both app features include:

• Free coaching: Live one-on-one coaching sessions with trained behavioral health wellness coaches through in-app chat or video appointments (available in 18 different languages). 

• Educational content: Age-tailored articles, videos, podcasts and stories.

• Stress-management tools and clinically validated assessments to understand and monitor behavioral health over time.

• Searchable directory and live care navigation support to connect users to their local behavioral health resources, including connecting users with their health plan, school-based services, or community-based organizations that can provide clinical care options and care coordination services.

• Moderated forums and programs to connect users with other youth or caregivers.

• Crisis and emergency safety resources for platform users experiencing a mental health crisis or who require immediate assistance.

Cava said the new apps “complement existing services” and are meant to provide an access point to help California youth connect with more care in their communities. 

Still the two apps will have slightly different content, tailored by age. Brightlife Kids addresses issues ranging from tantrums, sleep habits, peer pressure, bullying, sadness, anger and more. The young adult-skewing Soluna covers topics from stress management, social pressure, bullying and others. 

The coaching offerings also differ between the apps, with the services for younger children pairing a parent or caregiver with the child in joint sessions with a coach, while Soluna offers adolescents and young adults direct one-on-one coaching. 

Coaches for both apps have met specific industry or educational standards. BrightLife Kids coaches require either a master’s degree in a health-related field or certification from a nationally certified accreditation board or state certifying body (like the California Mental Health Services Authority for peer support specialists). Soluna app coaches include certified peer support specialists, mental health support professionals and substance use disorder counselors who are supervised by a team of clinical professionals.

Services are anonymous

Users may remain anonymous, and all information will remain confidential.

Soluna is currently available for download for Apple and Android devices. BrightLife Kids is currently only available on Apple devices, and will expand to Android by mid-year. 

During platform development some 300 youth and parents were consulted, including young users who could potentially benefit from the apps. Youth advisory board member Sriya Chilla, a second year undergraduate at UCLA, said she was happy with the Kooth app’s “comfortable and simple” approach to providing private and trusted care. 

“One of the most important factors to me is that these platforms are a foot in the door for youth to access more services,” she said during the virtual press conference. “When youth are feeling isolated and lacking a supportive network, especially when they are trying to keep their privacy and confidentiality in mind, it’s not as easy to just Google resources and trust anything that you find online.” 

While the state’s initial $680 million investment in both the Soluna and BrightLife Kids platforms is for a five-year contract period ending June 2027, DHCS officials said the goal is to make the apps available long term for all youth across the state. 

“We are at a pivotal moment to address this mental health crisis,” said DHCS Deputy Director for the Office of Strategic Partnerships Autumn Boylan during the launch. “DHCS is beyond excited to partner with Kooth and Brightline to launch these apps and to spread the word so that we can start driving adoption of these two important behavioral health tools.”

— Marijke Rowland is the senior health equity reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom in collaboration with the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF).