Q13 FOX Season of Giving

Unconventional methods could help teens struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts

SEATTLE -- Grief has been an endurance race for Kathleen Gilligan.

“He had just turned 14 -- this was six weeks before we lost him,” Gilligan said of her son Palmer Burk.

The Vashon Island mom is on a mission to prevent more teens from dying by suicide.

“One of the things he said was there is no place for me in this world,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan believes her Palmer wrestled with the idea of calling the suicide hotline right before he killed himself.

“He had poked 100 holes in it with a tip of his knife and I think he sat there tapping on it and I don’t think he called it,” Gilligan said.

Every day, people working at suicide hotlines talk others down from taking their lives. It’s a priceless human connection but lately another form of therapy is emerging.

“Our first objective is to try to provide some type of tool and service to people who don’t have anything at all,” professor Dror Ben-Zeev said.

That’s where mental health apps come in.

“We give people suggestions of what to do, what to avoid, strategies on how to think,” Ben-Zeev said.

That's what Ben-Zeev's app, Focus, aims to do.

The professor of psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine says his app is not a replacement for face-to-face therapy, but it’s a way to bridge the gap for many who may not have access to therapy and those who may be resistant to it.

“We lose a good chunk of the population we are trying to help right then and there, when you ask them to go to a clinic."

So Focus provides virtual access to trained clinical psychologists around the clock.

“They do it multiple times a day and so there is a real difference in the frequency and the intensity of the intervention."

Focus is still in the testing stages but there has been a surge of other online tools coined as digiceuticals breaking into the market.

“We are seeing a tremendous amount of millennials, we are seeing a lot of teenagers,” David Markovich said.

Markovich is the co-creator of 18percent, the online support group that was launched this year.

Markovich says it’s named after the fact that there's more than 18 percent of people suffering from mental illness in this country.

“It’s a community where people can chat with people struggling with the same struggles and inspiring each other,” Markovich said.

The online support group doesn't give out medical advice but does provide real-time support and hope.

In addition to 18percent, there are more mobile apps now trying to help people with depression and anxiety.

And the brains behind one of them is teenage siblings Hannah and Charlie Lucas from Georgia

“It’s like a security blanket,” Hannah said.

Hannah says she suffers from a chronic disease that makes her faint frequently.

“I just wish that I had an app to reach out to my friends and family. I told my brother about it and he started programming it,” Hannah said.

They came up with the app notOK.

"The ease of having a button to press when you are not OK,” Hannah said.

If you need help, pressing the panic button would send a text and GPS location to a chosen number of friends and family.

“The reason why it’s an app where you just press a button is that most people will text and delete and text and delete and then it may never get sent,” Charlie said.

They say it’s already helping teens with suicidal thoughts.

Gilligan wonders if an app like notOK could have helped her son Palmer

“Sounds like life-saving technology. I wish that existed when Palmer was still alive,” Gilligan said.