By: Carly Truett, Writer / Follow South Jersey Public Health Intern
ATLANTA, Ga. — Teenager Hannah Lucas came up with the idea for an app that would alert a user’s support group of a mental health emergency with the touch of a button. Her brother Charlie, 12 years old at the time, began development. Today, that app has touched thousands of lives.
The idea for notOK came to Hannah after she was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a blood circulation disorder that causes lightheadedness and fainting, as a freshman in high school. Hannah was bullied in school as a result of the condition, leading her down a path of depression, eating disorders, and self-harm that culminated in a suicide attempt.
Thankfully, her mother was there to intervene.
“I just remember needing a button that I could press on my phone so that my loved ones knew that I was not okay and where to come find me immediately,” she recalled. This led to the premise of the notOK app.
About a week after her attempt, Hannah told her younger brother about the idea. Charlie had spent a summer teaching himself app development using Khan Academy videos, so he started working on the wireframe and workflow that very day, excited to have an outlet to help his sister through a difficult time.
“That was the one thing that I could actually help her with at that time,” Charlie said. “I couldn’t catch her before she passed out, I couldn’t drive her to the doctor, I couldn’t really do anything, so I started working on the app.”
The notOK app allows the user to add up to five trusted contacts who must accept or decline the invitation. If the user feels they’re in need of help for emotional support, they press a button on the app’s main page and a message is sent to all five contacts, along with the user’s GPS location. When the user is feeling better, they can send a follow up message letting their support system know that they are okay. Both messages come in a standard format and are customizable.
The app is free to download and use. Originally, it was subscription-based to offset the cost of the third-party messaging system used, but that cost has since been removed. notOK is a nonprofit that’s funded through donations and grants. The owners report also working toward getting a corporate sponsor.
To date, the app has more than 100,000 downloads — and many success stories. In addition to leaving reviews in Google Play and the App Store, Hannah says that people have reached out through direct messaging on social media.
“I think the most recent [message] was this girl around my brother and I’s age just thanking us for creating this app because it saved her lives so many times throughout the years,” Hannah said. “Like, we did this, this is amazing, and I just remember crying in that moment when I read it. I was like, ‘wow.’”
The siblings acknowledge that some of the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and other current events may make notOK more important than ever. Charlie spoke to concerns about mental health related to the pandemic, noting that physical isolation can lead to social isolation, and people may be less likely to reach out to their support group.
Hannah added that, in addition to pandemic-related concerns like isolation, unemployment, and missing milestones like graduations and proms, the social justice movements happening and the events leading up to them can add to the burden on mental health.
“You turn on the news or you go on Twitter and you see all these bad things trending,” Hannah said. “And it’s just, honestly, it can feel really draining.”
“notOK can actually help with feeling drained … and all of the stuff that’s happening right now by allowing you to reach out with friends when you don’t have the words, to reach out with family, to reach out with therapists, and to reach out with the people that you need because it doesn’t always have to be crisis with notOK. You can do pre-crisis,” Charlie added.
Since creating the app, the teens have been able to travel around the country and engage with people and hear their mental health journeys. The siblings enjoy listening to these stories, sharing their own, and providing a resource to the community. Hannah looks forward to more travel when it is safer in light of the pandemic, but for now, the notOK app isn’t slowing down.
There is an upcoming update that will provide them with more data on the app’s users. They plan to soon expand to Canada and the UK. They plan to first develop translations into Spanish and French and continue growing from there. Hannah, now a freshman in college, and Charlie, a sophomore in high school, look forward to seeing how notOK can expand — how many more people it can help.
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This article was produced by a Follow South Jersey news intern thanks to a grant provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the New Jersey Health Initiatives program to create hyper-local news to meet the informational and health needs of the City of Bridgeton, N.J.