Keeping watch on veteran mental health
Mental illness is the largest single cause of disability in Australia—and it hits some communities harder than others. A research collaboration between UTS and tech start-up Soldier.ly aims to help veterans manage stress and keep them connected in times of crisis.
Content warning: this article discusses suicide and suicide prevention.
Two years ago, former Australian Defence Force (ADF) combat engineer and peacekeeper Chris Rhyss Edwards was standing on top of a seven-storey building, thinking about ending it all.
It’s a story that’s all too familiar in the armed forces. According to the Australian Government’s 2017 Mental Health Prevalence report, nearly 50 per cent of those who transitioned from the regular ADF (including ex-service, active and inactive personnel) were estimated to have experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months.
Unlike too many of his peers, Edwards lived to tell his story—but he wanted to do more than just survive. Instead, he created uStress, a smartwatch app that monitors the wearer’s physiological and biometric data to identify signs of stress. The app is currently the focus of a partnership with the UTS Neuroscience Research Unit.
“When it registers an indicator of stress, it vibrates on your arm in the first instance and says, ‘I’m noticing some stress. Are you OK?’ If you say no, the app will take you through a guided breathing exercise until your stress levels drop,” says Edwards, the founder of tech start-up Soldier.ly.
“If you’re really stressed, it prompts you to open the partner app on your smartphone and go through a guided meditation to help calm you down. But if you’re in a chronic state of stress, it can either automatically ping five of your friends to alert them that you might need help or give you the option to call a national helpline.”
While the idea for uStress was solid, Edwards couldn’t make it a reality on his own. So, he turned to the Defence Innovation Network, a university-led consortium that supports research engagement within the defence sector.
It was here that Edwards met leader of the UTS Neuroscience Research Unit, Associate Professor Sara Lal, whose expertise in neurosciences, medical physiology, analyses and health sensor and algorithm development was a perfect fit for the project.
“I’d been talking to my networks, and Sara’s name came up as an expert in this area of research. She’s crazy passionate about the space and the project, so that was really exciting, and it just kind of went from there,” he says.
“What Soldier.ly does is absolutely great, as it aims to look after the welfare of military veterans,” Associate Professor Lal says.
“My team will contribute medical sciences, engineering and innovative sensor and biofeedback technology, analytical, machine learning and algorithm development and clinical expertise to the project. Soldier.ly will provide access to veterans and Fitbit-type data and technology.”
This world-first continuous, real-time stress monitoring project will deliver three studies over the next 12 months. The first will focus on civilians; the second, a partnership with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs will target veterans; and the third will look at police offers working in New South Wales.
In each study, 100 participants will complete a lab study, answer psychosocial questions and undertake a stress test to help the research team better understand their physical responses to stress. The resulting data will be used to develop algorithms for different user groups.
The app has widespread appeal beyond the veteran community—in addition to UTS, Edwards has also established partnerships with Fitbit Health Solutions, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Zurich Insurance, which named uStress one of four global winners in its inaugural Zurich Innovation World Championship.
And, with workplace wellness data suggesting that 30 per cent of employees are impacted by chronic stress, anxiety or depression, there’s never been a more critical time for personalised tools for mental health management.
Veteran mental health by the numbers*:
• 46.6% estimated to have experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months
• ~20% have experienced suicidal ideation, plans or attempts in the last 12 months
• 2% have attempted suicide in the last 12 months
• 28.9% have felt that their life was not worth living
• 37% have experienced an anxiety disorder in the last 12 months
• 23.1% have experienced an effective disorder in the last 12 months
*Stats are estimates based on ADF members who have transitioned from the regular ADF, and include ex-serving, active and inactive personnel. Source: Mental Health Prevalence Report key findings.
If this article has raised concerns for you, help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467.
Find out how UTS can help you design, develop and implement new innovations in the disability sector. Contact email@example.com or phone +61 2 9514 9681.
Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash