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During his freshman year at the University of Michigan, Tommy Searle’s father passed away. In addition to the overwhelming support Searle received from friends, family and the U-M community, Searle — who graduated May 2020 — told The Michigan Daily he started journaling after the therapist he saw at the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) suggested it.

“That’s how I got introduced to journaling in the first year,” Searle said. “But I really found that there were a lot of improvements that could be made around it, like including the aspect of fun, making it easier to stick to as a habit, and (making it) more sociable and easy rather than just taking out a piece of paper and writing on it. That just wasn’t sustainable for me.”

Fast forward four years to today: Searle is now a co-founder of Wellnest, a mindful journaling app he designed alongside three other U-M alumni. Since the group launched the app in December of 2020, Searle, Jack Kornet, Drew Pilat and Mars Hovasse have made virtual journaling accessible to around 7,000 users. In May 2020, the team also brought on recent Cornell University graduate Reade Plunkett as their lead engineer. Specifically designed for iPhones and available for download on iOS, Wellnest is free. However, a user can choose to engage in a $5 per month paid subscription which adds access to guided courses on wellbeing and mental health to the free journaling platform.

The free and paid versions of the app allow users to type, doodle or speak out loud the daily thoughts they want to put down on their phone screen. Wellnest aims to help users identify their emotions throughout the week with “mood check-ins” and provides access to various conversation and “deep-dive” prompts for users to reflect on and write about. Journal entries are stored in users’ phones and are also backed up to their iCloud so they can monitor mental growth and changes.

Searle said his passion for mental health awareness began in the wake of his father’s death. After his father passed away, Searle sold t-shirts emblazoned with the logo of his father’s homebrew beer business and donated all of the proceeds to a mental health foundation. But when Searle entered his junior year in 2019 at the University, he said he realized there might be a way to use the technical skills he was learning as a computer science major to promote mental wellbeing. While interning at LinkedIn that year, Searle said he quickly clicked with fellow intern and U-M cognitive science major Marissa “Mars” Hovasse. According to Searle, Hovasse was intrigued by Searle’s desire to create an app that normalizes embracing positive psychology — focusing on individual strengths and working to achieve self-fulfillment — on a daily basis.

“That’s kind of how the concept (of Wellnest) started,” Searle said. “Just around creating something that would help people talk about what was going on in their head, and (how they can) do it in a healthy, but also fun and playful and approachable, way.”

When Searle returned to the University in Fall 2019 for his senior year, he recruited two of his brothers from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity — Art and Design senior Jack Kornet and Business senior Drew Pilat — to assist him and Hovasse in developing their basic concept into a unique, user-friendly application.

“The biggest issue that we saw was that there were a lot of apps and resources that felt really clinical or really unapproachable,” Searle said. “And that, to us, was what was preventing so many people from getting help or finding an outlet that would actually serve them well. And that was what we wanted to do: create an outlet that was fun.”

LSA sophomore Nandini Arya started journaling last year, after being encouraged to regularly jot down her thoughts by a friend. Arya said she has since found the activity to be extremely cathartic and beneficial. Though she uses audio journaling techniques to organize her thoughts on a regular basis, Arya said she will occasionally handwrite her journal entries when she is stressed.

“It helps me get things out of my system,” Arya said. “If I’m thinking about something or I can’t stop thinking about something that’s worrying me, if I write it down in a way that feels like I’m talking to somebody, it kind of takes the weight off.”

Searle said the Wellnest development team is planning to launch a new beta version of the app — currently only accessible with a direct invitation from the creators — by the end of the year. Searle said the new version of the app is more interactive than the current journaling platform and noted several similarities between its design and that of the popular Nintendo video game series Animal Crossing. As with Animal Crossing, in the new version of Wellnest, users will have an individual “avatar” and an island environment they can interact with.

“You can write in it or take pictures, and then you can plant those posts (as flowers) and put them on your island,” Searle said. “That way when you walk up to the flowers, it’ll bring up that memory either written or as a photo. It’s like this cool way of creating a visual notebook, like a reflection gallery.”

Nansook Park, psychology professor and director of the Michigan Positive Psychology Center, explained to The Daily how journaling can help students understand and alleviate their day-to-day stress.

“(Students) are on what I call the ‘autopilot mode’ all the time,” Park said. “So they are always thinking about one task after the other and hardly take a break or think about where they have been, what happened and where they are going. So I think if they can take (journaling) seriously, I think that can be effective.”

Rates of concerning mental health symptoms and suicidality have been rising in recent years among students attending postsecondary institutions, with college students reportedly being “more stressed-out than ever before.” As a result, Searle said Wellnest can be particularly impactful for this demographic.

Searle and the other developers began signing collaborative contracts with universities including The University of Pennsylvania and Boston University over the past year, making the full, paid Wellnest subscription accessible to all students, faculty and staff at no cost to them. When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly shut down campuses and classes went virtual, stress, anxiety and loneliness became major issues within the U-M student body and throughout colleges nationwide. Searle said the launch of Wellnest and the contracts with universities were serendipitously timely because of the mental health concerns students had to grapple with during the pandemic.

“COVID had just hit in the spring,” Searle said. “So all of these schools were completely online, which meant that they had very little, if any, good mental health resources for their students. So it seemed like a very good time for (Wellnest) to be working with them.”  

Although budget cuts were made to universities’ wellbeing services and mental health departments in several cases during the pandemic, Searle said the universities Wellnest collaborated with found the new partnership to be mutually beneficial.

“I remember talking to like three schools where like half of their wellbeing departments were laid off,” Searle said. “While working with these schools, we got to talk to incredible people. At UPenn, for example, our partners are top of their field, working on positive psychology programs or implementing solutions in all sorts of varying spaces in the mental health field. We get to kind of learn from them as much as they get to learn from us, so that part has been really cool.”

When asked about whether or not the Wellnest team considered collaborating with the University, Searle said he initially looked into the possibility, however, he never was put in contact with a “good point person” at the University to communicate with. According to Searle, he reached out to CAPS and Wolverine Wellness about a potential partnership, but they were not interested in talking with Wellnest at the time.

CAPS director Dr. Todd Sevig told The Daily that CAPS is currently exploring how to incorporate various new technologies into their counseling and mental health services — and Wellnest is one of the options. Sevig told The Daily that CAPS did not originally pursue a partnership with Wellnest because they were focusing on improving in-person services, rather than virtual mental health services at the time.

Now, after a year of offering virtual counseling services, Sevig said CAPS is working with student groups such as the Student Advisory Board, Central Student Government, CAPS in Action and the Wolverine Support Network to gather data and feedback from students about which technologies they would like to see CAPS use in the future. CAPS hopes to implement some of these new virtual services by the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester.

“We’re actually in the process right now of basically studying and exploring a whole bunch of new technology things and (Wellnest) would be one of them,” Sevig said. “There are other (virtual mental health services) available. And so we’re in a decision making process.”

Although Park emphasized that she does not oppose a potential partnership between the University and Wellnest, she said she is skeptical about the efficacy of apps and technology in general when it comes to mental health.

“I am not opposed to (Wellnest),” Park said. “My only concern is that it’s easy for people to resort to the app because it’s something easy: you can just pay and then just let them do it. A tool is a tool, but it’s not going to magically make students healthier and happier…I’m not sure how effective this will be, whether it will really make a dent in promoting student mental health and well being.”

Arya said she personally would like to see the University offer Wellnest’s services to students, since journaling has been a powerful activity for her, and may be helpful in improving other students’ mental health.

“(Journaling has) been helpful and helped me see what is actually a big deal versus what just feels like a big deal at the moment,” Arya said. “Especially during normal college times there’s a lot going on all the time, so I feel like that would be a good way to help filter through that and organize those thoughts.”

Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at mlewand@umich.edu