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Utah Business

The teenage mental health crisis is more dire than ever, thanks to the stressors of the pandemic, but a new tech startup wants to help.

SchoolPulse is helping high schools fight America’s teenage mental health crisis—one text at a time

Teens are struggling. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a survey that painted a picture of the pain this age group is experiencing: In 2021, more than one in three high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent reported they “persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” 

The CDC survey also revealed that a sense of being cared for and supported at school—what is called “school connectedness”—had an important effect on students. Youth who experienced higher levels of school connectedness were significantly less likely to report persistent feelings of hopelessness or consider attempting suicide. However, fewer than half (47 percent) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic, the report states.

In light of this, Utah-based SchoolPulse is doing everything it can to combine technology, therapy, and positive psychology to ensure that school connectedness grows. Through this platform, teens can access real-time professional mental health guidance, suicide prevention, and positive psychology messaging.

Inspiration and intervention

“We help build and save lives, principally among our students in grades 7-12. We do that by being where the students are—on their phone,” says Colby Jenkins, CEO of SchoolPulse.

SchoolPulse is a text-based Response-to-Intervention (RTI), Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) platform, Jenkins says. “The term PBIS is important for educators when referring to mental health concepts, training, systems, etc. PBIS is an evidence-based three-tiered framework to improve and integrate all data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day. We help educators fulfill and meet their PBIS requirements.” 

The St. George-based company was co-founded in 2017 by licensed therapist Iuri Melo and software engineer Trent Staheli and currently works with schools in 15 states. To interact with SchoolPulse, students of participating schools scan a QR code unique to their school that automatically “enrolls” them in the text-based system. Three times a week, SchoolPulse sends out positive psychology messaging. 

On Mondays, it might be an uplifting meme or a link to a snippet of a SchoolPulse podcast featuring the company’s high school interns and therapists addressing real-life issues teens are facing. On Wednesdays, SchoolPulse sends surveys. For example, one survey may ask how students are feeling, with possible responses ranging from “really sad” to “kinda sad,” “kinda happy,” and “really happy.” Fridays are all about positive psychology messaging and helping give students tools for managing their approach to life’s challenges. With a 98 percent open rate, SchoolPulse students are clearly paying attention.

Real-time, real-life help

SchoolPulse students are also invited to send texts with any concerns, problems, or questions. And the great thing is—they do. Texts have included everything from everyday stresses like, “I just failed my test,” to soul-rending cries for help. 

“Our therapists are responding to the students in real-time. We are not automated bots,” Jenkins says. “The students communicate with us anonymously. Once they opt-in, it’s often like a dam breaks. Kids want to share what they’re struggling with. They want to have validation and a warm, gentle, kind, loving response. Our goal is to build a connection and steer them to a trusted adult so they can have that meaningful in-person context.”

In addition to one-on-one counseling and messaging, SchoolPulse provides transparency and real-time reporting to the high schools. Administrators have access to their unique SchoolPulse dashboard, where they can track critical analytics. Text message threads are pinned for review (while still providing student anonymity), and algorithms scale the sentiment of every text to track “sentiment,” “joy,” and “confidence” scores. 

Having a finger on the emotional pulse of the school helps administrators and educators develop specific interventions. For example, Jenkins says, one high school was seeing negative sentiments around Valentine’s Day. “Things like, ‘I hate Valentine’s Day; nobody remembers me.’ We shared that sentiment with the educators, and on Valentine’s Day, the principal and staff gave every student a valentine,” Jenkins says. “They wouldn’t have been able to do that proactively had we not been able to gather that actionable information.”

An upward spiral

SchoolPulse data indicates that its efforts to uplift and even save students are helping. A January to May 2021 student survey showed that participating schools saw a 48 percent decrease in the number of students who reported to be “really sad,” and a 6 percent increase in the number of students who reported to be “really happy.” 

Justin Keate, principal of Deseret Hills High School in St. George, says SchoolPulse gives him peace of mind to know that his students get a check-in text every week. “This is one more way we can communicate to our students that they matter and we’re concerned with how they are doing,” he says. “The data SchoolPulse provides can help us adjust our interventions as necessary to better meet the needs of our students. We want our students to know they all matter, and we are here to help. We want them to know if they need to talk with someone, they can.”

Jenkins points out that SchoolPulse is not designed to be a replacement for school counselors or teachers but rather an extension. The SchoolPulse website cites a 464-to-one student/counselor ratio that demonstrates the need for all-hands-on-deck to help students. “We magnify what the school is doing. We help unlock that mental fitness of the student so they can be a more whole student in the classroom,” Jenkins says.

SchoolPulse also offers robust online mental health resources for students and educators. Keate sees that impact and says SchoolPulse has empowered his staff to be more confident—and both students and staff feel valued and taken care of. “Teachers appreciate the help with students who are struggling, and by helping address and teach resilience strategies, teachers have students who are in a better place to learn in the classroom,” he says.