Milford students develop app focusing on mental health, disordered eating

MILFORD — Foran High students Leighla-Marie Dantes and Violet Wilson have turned to technology in the battle against mental health and eating disorders.

Wilson and Dantes, a junior and sophomore, respectively, developed an app that tackles both mental health and eating disorders as part of the Connecticut’s Third Congregational District’s 2021 Congressional App Challenge. And the results proved quite successful as the pair earn top honors in the annual challenge.

“The app is a mental and physical health app, and it’s meant to be styled after nutrition apps like food tracking apps,” said Wilson.

“However, it’s meant to be different from food tracking apps,” added Dantes. “It’s meant to be versatile, so if you want, you can track your calories, food that you eat and track your weight, but if that’s not something you want, you can track how many vitamins and nutrients you are consuming daily, track goals that you have or use it as a mental health diary.”

Both Dantes and Wilson are in AP computer science principals, and in early October, their teacher told them about the Congregational App Challenge, and their deadline was on Nov. 1.

“He told us since we have to create a project code for his class anyway, we could use that code and submit it to the challenge,” said Dantes. “We are like ‘Why not ... we are computer scientists, we could create something, and even if we don’t win, we still created something.’”

The app, called Olive, revolves around being customization to help the user with their needs.

“On the customization screen, the user chooses the features they want to be in the app,” said Dantes.

“Along those features are included a weight tracker, food tracker, a big thing for your goals and a vitamin log, a minerals log and a mental health diary on the homepage just in case they need it,” said Wilson.

Before developing the app, Dantes and Violet talked to friends and family about their experiences using apps in building Olive. As they downloaded different apps in the same genre, they started to see how some of the apps could incidentally promote eating disorder pathology by the way they are structured.

“Our mental health and our physical health are very clearly linked, and the food tracking apps that are currently on the market have a very heavy focus towards constantly tracking your weight and counting calories,” said Dantes. “You also get consistent notifications from these apps reminding you that you haven’t written down what you’ve eaten that day or if you’ve been going over your calorie limit. But, unfortunately, there’s a lack of customization, and that’s not the best approach for everybody, and there’s not much room in these apps for you to choose a different path or to focus on mental health.”

When researching the app, they found during the pandemic, there was an increase in calls to hospitals related to eating disorders and in general, there has been an increase in eating disorders.

“When you try to be healthy in the age of COVID-19, a lot of people have found themselves slipping into old habits that are very self-destructive,” said Wilson. “This is eating disorders or disordered eating or just being at a bad place mentally because they don’t have the help or the ability to talk to anybody because they have to be by themselves.”

The duo hopes to help those who have medically diagnosed eating disorders, those experiencing disordered eating or those who want to use the app for only its mental health feature.

“The focus we had was primary on disordered eating,” said Wilson. “There are many unhealthy eating disorders that people have, but they are not to the extreme where it would qualify for a diagnosis. But that doesn't mean it’s not important to help, correct or give support.”

“Some examples of disordered eating can be skipping meals intentionally, excessively restricting calories on certain days, not to a point where it would create a pattern that would be given a diagnosis, but to the point where they’ve had periods of that behavior, and that’s never healthy,” said Dantes.

With Olive, Dantes and Wilson are trying to prompt reflection and how users feel about their goals and what they’ve been eating.

“If a person has been tracking their calories and they sit back and realize that has been causing them anxiety and making them feel even worse about themselves and is affecting their mental health to the point where it’s something they shouldn’t be pursuing right now, there should be the option for them to go back into the customization setting and turn off the feature and focus on other parts,” said Wilson.

“I personally have not used a food tracking app, but I have met many people who have,” said Dantes. “I noticed you (Wilson) were using one and wondered how it worked, and it wasn’t versatile at all. It just said you’re eating this, and you shouldn’t be. It felt like it was saying, ‘you’re eating this amount of calories, and that’s shameful.’ The thing is, nobody wants to be shamed for living, for eating for existing because that is what we need to live, food, water and shelter.”

When the users come to the mental health section, Wilson said it prompts them with the question of how was their day was.

“If you’re having a bad day, it asks you what made your day bad. It starts with some negative events and how they made them feel,” she said. “And then there’s I had a good day, which starts with some good things that happened and what made it a good day. But there’s also an option where it might be neither, where the user might want to talk about anything, and there’s also one last portion that says I’m having a really tough time and I need extra help. That shows the user a suicide hotline and an eating disorder hotline because Olive aims to help everybody, we can’t help everyone, and we do want to refer them to professionals.”

The overall motto for Olive is everything in moderation.

“The research and the thoughtfulness that went into this whole process of the impact those apps could have on other people was great,” said Foran High School Principal Max Berkowitz. “This app is the best of both worlds where you can track your calories, but also offer opportunities for mental health.”

“They are great students and extremely hard-working,” Berkowitz continued. “It’s great for them, it’s great for Foran High School, we are very proud of them, and I think their future is extraordinarily bright.”

At the moment, the app isn’t accessible to anybody except to them, but to enter the app challenge, they had to submit a working code.

“The due date was Nov. 1, and of course, I was pushing that deadline,” said Dantes. “I woke up Halloween morning, and I was like, well this is my treat, and I finished it up, and Violet finished up the entire video in one day explaining what the app was.”

Wilson said they found out they had won in early January.

“This is for every Congressional District, and I was watching all the other Congregational Districts announce their winners, and there was nothing for Connecticut,” she said.

“It was Jan. 3rd, I got an email from Congresswoman (Rosa) DeLauro office, and at first, I thought it was going to be a 'thanks for participating' thing,” said Dantes. “I read it once, then I read it again, and it said that I had won, then I texted Violet if she had gotten the same email, and she had.”

The plan is to transfer the code to Java to publish Olive.

“We are definitely trying to get it together and definitely trying to get it out to the people because we want to start helping people as soon as possible,” said Wilson.