MONROE — It has been eight years since Teri and Kurt Ellefson lost their only son, Jacob, to depression. In the years since, they have dedicated much of their lives to preventing other families from the same experience through their foundation, Jacob’s SWAG (support with awareness and giving) Foundation.
The foundation has sponsored runs, worked with school districts to support students and focused on suicide awareness within the community and beyond. Among their biggest projects yet is Got Your Back, a mental health app dedicated to giving users the tools they need to battle depression.
“We want people to just always be able to feel like they can turn to someone,” Teri said. “There’s someone out there.”
In the past, the foundation has brought suicide prevention and awareness speakers to Monroe and surrounding school districts, but Teri and Kurt realized that, though the speakers often are impactful to students, the students’ engagement often lasts only weeks after the speaker has left.
“We found after bringing in speakers that sometimes the kids would understand and listen for that week, but they wouldn’t engage after that,” Teri said. “It was there and then gone.”
They wanted to be able to support and reach out to the students beyond when the speakers have left.
“We wanted to find a way that we could, as a board, connect with young adults, kids more on a 24/7 basis,” she said.
Through the app, which was built by Synqronus Communications in Monroe with the help of Computer Know How in Brodhead, users can find support and calming activities at any time, right at their fingertips.
The app operates in a way that Teri equates to a stop light: it starts in “red”— crisis mode. When a user opens the app, they will see four boxes to choose from providing the options to call 911, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or to contact members of one’s “squad.”
Like many aspects of the app, including the name, “squad” comes directly from Jacob and his own group of friends, who referred to themselves as the “squad.” When any one of them was in trouble, in football or in life, the friends would always support each other with a brief reminder: “I got your back.”
Users can input their own squad members in what acts as a “contacts” list of the user’s support system. When in crisis, they can call or text the squad members.
While developing the app, Jacob’s SWAG Foundation’s board was sure to acknowledge that many people are hesitant to reach out during a mental health crisis and may sometimes need help in finding the words to start. To make starting the conversation easier, when a user presses the option to text a squad member, they will automatically be directed to the phone or tablet’s messaging app with a pre-set message asking the friend to call or check-in. All they need to do it hit send.
“(For) a lot of people, when they’re in crisis or having issues, to start a conversation is really hard,” Teri said. “To tell someone ‘I need help’ or ‘I need to talk to someone.’”
A similar pre-set message will appear if the user opts to text the Crisis Text Hotline (1-800-273-8255).
The app isn’t only useful during a crisis. A user can simply click “I’m OK” to be directed to the “yellow” section of the app where they can find non-emergent help. There, they can find the “support locator” which will show a map and give directions to mental health services. The section also includes resources and other information on suicide warning signs and how to help a struggling friend. Users can also find specialized crisis lines for farmers, LGBTQ+ people and veterans.
If people are stressed or have anxiety or need to recenter themselves, we wanted them to have the ability to do it right at their fingertips.Teri Ellefson, app co-creator
To get through to the green section, a user can select the option to view different calming exercises. The exercises can allow individuals to meditate, relax or recenter to avoid a trigger or crisis.
“If people are stressed or have anxiety or need to recenter themselves, we wanted them to have the ability to do it right at their fingertips,” Teri said.
Users can also input a safety plan into the app which can allow them to identify and avoid triggers or recenter when needed. While many doctors and counselors will set up safety plans with their clients, the plans often sit in the doctors’ office, away from the client when they need it.
It takes a village
According to the Ellefsons, choosing the features of the app was no small, quick task.
“We wanted to make sure we had all of our bases covered,” Kurt said. “We wanted accurate information. We wanted secure information and up to date information. A lot of research was put into this to make sure it was done right and it was done well to help people in need,” Kurt said.
The five-person Jacob’s SWAG Foundation board worked with a plethora of local mental health professionals, educators, parents and even Jacob’s friends to narrow down specific features for the app.
To start, they looked at other apps, both mental-health related and not, and noted features that they liked. They changed and improved aspects to better suit their mission and even came up with features of their own, such as the support locator.
The community’s app
In nearly every aspect of the app, there is some sort of local tie, the Ellefsons said. Community members from all over Green County helped the foundation get the app running.
“This app was built locally by so many different people,” Teri said. “A lot of people touched or were involved in this project from day one,” Teri said. “It really was built out of love by this community”
The entire process of the app’s creation was fully-funded by sponsors, grants and the like, but some small businesses in Monroe also pitched in to donate a percentage of sales or other funding.
“The community really helped build this,” Kurt said. “The community really helped fund it and the community really helped put a lot of input into what the app should look like. This is not Jacob SWAG’s app, this is the community’s app.”
Amid COVID-19 and all of the uncertainty and confusion that has filled 2020, Kurt, a teacher at Black Hawk, recognized that students needed the app. They have worked closely with Monroe and surrounding school districts, Black Hawk included, to educate students on the app.
In Monroe, students at the middle and high schools are shown how to use the app during homeroom. Every student was also given a Got Your Back t-shirt to spread awareness of the app.
“We’re making sure that there’s a level of familiarity,” School District of Monroe Pupil Services Director Joe Monroe said.
The community really helped build this. The community really helped fund it and the community really helped put a lot of input into what the app should look like. This is not Jacob SWAG’s app, this is the community’s app.Kurt Ellefson, app co-creator
To celebrate the app’s launch and spread word in the community, the foundation had planned a rollout presentation set up with educators, mental health professionals and other community members and speakers, but the app’s April completion meant that COVID-19 would cause social gatherings to be limited. Regardless, the Ellefsons knew that they wanted the app to hit the community as soon as possible with all of the uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic.
“We were going to hold off with the presentation of this app and getting it out to the public,” Kurt said, “But we decided we can’t wait, we cannot hold off on this because kids are stressed and they need this app now. If they need this app or this resource, we wanted them to have access to it.”
The board wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when rolling out the app, but they have been surprised and grateful to see the growth that the app has seen already. They have had users download and visit the app from as far as New York or California, saying that they had heard of the app in therapy or visited it after losing a friend to suicide.
In the first two months of the app’s existence, they had over 200,000 impressions, or people visiting the app for more than 15 seconds.
“We just want kids to know that there’s always someone there to listen to you,” Teri said. “Someone there to help you. We all know the teen years can be really crappy sometimes but there’s better days ahead. We just want (teens), or even young adults, to get through this moment, get through these issues or whatever you’re having just to get to the other side.”
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.