MentaLingual: Helping users improve their mental well-being

App will help people gain insight into emotional intelligence through enjoyable and scientifically-backed learning
Members of the MentaLingual team (clockwise fro top left): Gargi Goel, Emily Chen, Vivian Wang, and Charlotte Pearlstone. Missing from the photo is Astha Agarwal

Launched as part of McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, impact200 is a sustainability challenge aimed at turning student ideas into concrete projects to make the world a better, and greener, place. The objective is to address, in particular, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to protect the planet, improve lives and end poverty.

The response from McGill students was impressive: 44 teams of between three and six members submitted proposals following the original call for entries in late 2020. Of those, 10 were named as finalists this past April.

The projects focus on alleviating environmental and social problems in myriad ways. These initiatives include everything from converting harmful excess algal bloom into biomass and transforming solid waste into nutrition; to purifying contaminated water and developing a solar mobile refrigerator for clinics in remote regions. The common thread tying all impact200 finalists together is to make the world a better place.

Each finalist received funding and expert mentors to help develop a proof-of-concept during the summer. The impact200 initiative would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Sustainability Projects Fund, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Arts.

Leading up to the announcement of the winning project in December, we will feature the 10 finalists in the Reporter.

Today, we talk with the team behind MentaLingual, an initiative that will help users improve their emotional intelligence with a gamified, scientifically backed EdTech tool.

Tell us about MentaLingual.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly led to greater attention on the importance of finding ways to practice good mental hygiene, which include learning how to adapt to uncertainty, feelings of loss, and anxiety. But even prior to the pandemic, maintaining mental wellness was an issue that we had experienced ourselves or witnessed others struggle with. We came into this competition knowing that radical change in this area was imperative.

When thinking of how we wanted to address the growing disconnect between access to and demand for mental health support and educational resources, we knew we didn’t want to encapsulate our ideas into “just another app.” At first glance, after all, the market seems quite saturated: mental and physical health and fitness tracking continue to be one of the fastest growing categories of apps. However, there remain few tools which approach emotional intelligence in an educational format backed exclusively by peer-reviewed research. That’s how our idea was born: a digital tool in the form of an app and eventually web-based website that will help people gain insight into emotional intelligence through enjoyable and scientifically backed learning. Note that we define “emotional intelligence” as the ability to understand, use, and manage one’s own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.

Our app will deliver lessons in a gamified format that teaches individuals the skills necessary to (1) better understand their own emotional intelligence and (2) support the emotional health of those around them. Think Duolingo, the language learning app, but for emotional intelligence learning. We hope that gamified learning will encourage our users to engage and remain committed to learning how to improve their mental well-being and equip them with the skills necessary to help others.

A central tenet of MentaLingual is our approach to scientific partnerships. We plan to form community-based partnerships to create impactful mental health-focused resources. Our inspiration for partnerships comes from the women’s health app Clue, which creates all their lessons and content in collaboration with academic researchers and medical professionals. The people we work with will have experience researching or creating psychology-based educational resources, and by leveraging their knowledge and expertise, we’ll be able to explore topics with real-world impact that are sensitive to personal differences, demographic diversity, and cultural beliefs and attitudes about mental health.

We will also establish partnerships with employers and schools to increase awareness of the app and serve as supplementary support to existing mental health support infrastructure like teletherapy or one-on-one counselling on campus. We submitted our project to the Mary H. Brown Fund here at McGill, which financially supports projects related to mental health, and were awarded funding from them this past year. We were certainly thrilled to receive that vote of confidence in our idea from a university funder.

How many people are on the team?

Our team is composed of five women dedicated to improving mental health support across a variety of communities. We come from cross-disciplinary backgrounds as students, activists, and practitioners striving towards greater mental health accessibility and awareness. From working as a McGill Rez floor fellow for 100+ students as an undergrad (Astha) to serving on the Wisdom2Action and RBC Future Launch Canadian Youth Mental Health Apps Advisory Council (Emily), all of us have been involved with helping connect young people with mental health services, and these experiences motivated us to come together to make change on a larger scale. Our team is comprised of:

  • Emily Chen, BA Honours in Urban Geography and Cognitive Science (2021) – CEO
  • Charlotte Pearlstone, BA in Psychology and Art History (2019) – Head of Product and Design
  • Astha Agarwal, BA in Psychology and Economics (2019) – Head of Research and Development
  • Vivian Wang, BASc in Biology and Economics (2018), MSc in Experimental Medicine (2021) – Head of Partnerships
  • Gargi Goel, Graduate Diploma in Surgical Innovation (expected 2022) – Head of Finance

Which of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals does this project address?

To address the “Bright Spots” aspect of this challenge, we chose three overarching goals to guide how we conceptualized and pitched our product:

No.1: Democratize access to mental health. This goal addresses SDG #10, Reduced Inequalities. There is a potential for us to deliver high-quality educational materials into the hands of potentially thousands (or even millions) of users, particularly those who lack access to traditional mental health resources for themselves or who are members of communities suffering from inadequate mental health infrastructure.

No.2: Cut through pervasive misinformation and stigma around mental health. We recognized an untapped opportunity for a fun, educational tool that people at home can use to learn about their emotional intelligence and better understand and support the feelings and experiences of others, thus addressing SDG #4, Quality Education. Additionally, this last area of learning how to support others is particularly underdeveloped in current health and well-being applications on the market, and while this information is available online, its presentation is lackluster and not as accessible as it could be.

Lastly, No.3: Collaborate with health professionals and our community of users to help people improve their own well-being and that of others. To do so, we are addressing SDG #3, Good Health and Well-Being.

What was the genesis of the initiative?

The idea for MentaLingual started as a passion project that Emily pursued with a different group of McGill students through the Faculty of Engineering’s goLEAD leadership incubator. During goLEAD, she was particularly interested in addressing the mental health crisis on university campuses, so her group worked on enhancing communication between McGill students and administrators by bridging the disconnect between available mental health resources and students’ needs. With MentaLingual, we hope to augment her prior group’s work by addressing the growing demands on current mental health service quotas.

As young adults, we are personally familiar with the unique mental health challenges faced by this unique demographic, and we felt that mental health resources for this population were particularly sparse and seldom discussed. Thus, we felt that piloting our idea with students at McGill would be a logical choice that could create large-scale, sustainable impact.

MentaLingual’s goals are two-fold: one, to learn how to improve one’s own mental well-being, and two, to equip one with the skills necessary to help others. This latter goal was inspired by a lecture in Dr. Madhukar Pai’s PPHS511 Fundamentals of Global Health course, which Emily took in her final year of undergrad. During this lecture, students learned how leaders of communities that lack access to certain healthcare services can “bridge the resource gap” by learning how to provide interim care for members of their community. Inspired by this logic, we proposed the possibility for learning how to support a peer’s emotional wellbeing, with the hope being that by learning how to help others, one can directly support their communities, especially those suffering from inadequate mental health infrastructure.

Could you tell us a bit about the mentorship phase of the impact200 competition? How did it work, how beneficial was it?

Our mentor for the final round was Jessica Udo, an Electrical and Software Engineering graduate from McGill who now works as a Product Manager on Microsoft’s 1ES Data Insights Platform. She is also the chair of the Africans at Microsoft Employee network and the Program Manager for the African Impact Challenge. Thus, we were so grateful that Jessica carved out time in her day to meet with us and share insights on how we could start developing our prototype.

The opportunity for mentorship was incredible – being paired with Jessica meant that we had an extremely knowledgeable and engaged industry expert who could not only share what she knew from working with multi-disciplinary teams but also help us think through the social impact of MentaLingual. It was extremely beneficial to be able to speak with someone who had first-hand experience with technology products because none of us had worked in a technology company before and thus had a lot of questions about design iteration, prototyping, and building a product from scratch.

Where does the initiative stand at present?

We started conceptualization of our prototype back in July 2021 by conducting a scoping survey to determine the gaps in mental health access currently faced by a group of young adults, which is our target market. Among the many findings from this survey, the results showed that 63 per cent of participants were definitively enthusiastic about using technology to address their or someone else’s mental health, compared with 4 per cent of participants being opposed to the idea (our survey allowed for open-ended responses, so 33 per cent of respondents did not indicate a strong preference either way). While MentaLingual does not provide or replace in-person therapy (or even telemedicine), our product does provide much-needed opportunities to practice elements of certain therapies digitally without needing to wait for services and helps train members of a community to support one another. We spent the rest of Summer and early Fall 2021 learning how to design and create a prototype using Figma, which is one of the most popular collaborative design tools used by product design professionals in the technology industry.

Eventually, we plan to pilot our prototype on focus groups and start building a potential user community on Slack or in a Facebook group to facilitate user feedback. Both platforms are commonly used by early-stage companies to build online communities. Since our users are the backbone of our product, our team will be easily accessible on multiple communication platforms to develop content that align well with our user’s needs and requests. Longer term, we hope to launch our app and begin developing scientific partnerships.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We’d like to thank the Bicentennial Office for their support throughout the competition, the Sustainability Projects Fund and the Faculties of Arts and Science for their financial support, and the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, the McGill Office of Sustainability, the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative, and representatives of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for making this competition possible. We’d also like to thank our mentor, Jessica Udo, for her insight while we developed our prototype.

Watch the videos of all the Finalists of the impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge and vote for your favourite project. Winners will be announced on December 2. Vote here.