Changing Trajectory

Marblesapp, like mental health care, is for everyone.

Marblesapp | Photo of Adam Moen

Marblesapp | Photo of Adam Moen

It’s no coincidence that the University of Minnesota was one of five U.S. colleges to receive the 2015 Active Minds Healthy Campus Award. We have a committee dedicated to student mental health, an animal therapy program that brings furry love to campus, and an expansive website for mental health resources (mentalhealth.umn.edu).

While everyone lines up to see the beloved miniature pony, less people are willing to open up to others, professional or not, about their mental health. Marblesapp, founded by 2012 alumnus Adam Moen, seeks to improve mental health on campus by creating an environment of self-awareness and support. It’s a lot to ask of an app, but Moen’s faith in Marblesapp is infectious.

Marblesapp’s concept is simple. Each day (or up to three times a day), users take a quick, one-minute, seven-question survey covering key questions such as self-perception of health, purpose, and support network. The answers are tracked over time to help the user see the choices that make your emotions fluctuate. Another feature of the app called “Tips” is a forum section where users can post anonymously to encourage others, share their experience, or ask for advice. Ultimately, Marblesapp serves as a self-evaluation tool, a community of support, and a resource for mental health.

Marblessapp | Screenshot

Marblessapp | Screenshot

For too many people, mental health is just for those with disorder diagnoses. But to Moen, mental health means something that truly includes everyone—“normal” or not.

“It’s not about the conditions you’ve been labeled,” Moen said. “Are you thriving in all aspects of your life? Sound body, mind, and heart. It’s the whole experience about how an individual perceives their reality. Is it more on the anxiety side or the depression side? How do we help you zero in so you see clearly?”

Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental health diagnoses for college students. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, 11.1 students out of a given 100,000 will commit suicide every year, and the trend continues to increase.

But to Moen, mental health means something that truly includes everyone, ‘normal’ or not.

“Our students are really hurting,” Tai Mendenhall, a University family social science associate professor said. “[Marblesapp] is a way for them to focus on other ways to measure worth other than being a good student.”

Mendenhall and Moen have worked together since the app’s conception, first targeting the key survey questions, and then creating a research proposal to measure the app’s effects on its users.

Although anyone with a smartphone can download an app, Moen is gearing its function and nuances to this University. Moen had his darkest times in college, and as he’s shifted his life views, he’s dug deeply into campus to help other people experiencing the same purposelessness and drifting that he did. He knows what going to college here is like; he knows the ins and outs of the mental health system in place.

Marblessapp | Screenshot

Marblessapp | Screenshot

Moen has spent hours researching for the app, and before his venture into Marblesapp, he shared his thoughts on mental health through blogs, public talks, and videos. He started REPsolutions, a consulting and product development company that deals with healthcare and mental health improvement. REPtech, a subsidy of REPsolutions, is Marblesapp’s technology business line that conducts its app and web development. Moen really is his well-earned Internet persona, “That Mental Health Guy.”

Marblesapp’s commitment to brightening is apparent in its social media presence, which was created months before the app’s September launch. All of its platforms—Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr—are a wash of cheery orange and pure white, but Tumblr in particular shows that desire for connection.

Tagged with #universityofminnesota [sic] in almost all of its posts, the Tumblr blog also features a photo of University students as its background. However, instead of maroon and gold-clad figures with bursting smiles, it’s just a photograph of students walking on campus. It’s nothing noteworthy, and surely wouldn’t be hung in the office of a University higher-up to show off the pride of Minnesota.

For Marblesapp, though, the photograph seems to speak to the greater idea that everyone is walking around with no idea what the other is thinking. The feelings of purposelessness and worthlessness that Moen had felt in college caused him to turn to drugs to escape, and eventually, thoughts of suicide. As he put it in his TEDxUMN talk in spring 2015, he “had to tempt death to feel like he was a human being.”

“Really, I had been slowly becoming so anxious,” Moen disclosed in a post from December 2014. “It wasn’t until I was having full blown panic attacks that I realized I spent most of my day totally nervous and anxious.”

Mental health crises can often attack people as a sudden, dramatic thunderstorm, but sometimes it invades in smaller ways—in cracks and crevices, a sick gas seeping through your living space that slowly steals away the thoughts that make you feel a part of this world.

There is no “silver bullet” to mental health problems, Moen said. Marblesapp isn’t about taking the place of a professional mental health counselor, and it isn’t about trying to make everything better by putting a lovely spin on the world. Instead it’s about empowerment.

Sometimes it invades in smaller ways—in cracks and crevices, a sick gas seeping through your living space that slowly steals away the thoughts that make you feel a part of this world.

“Self awareness allows you to take a step back from all of the mental activity that goes on and realize that you’re not that mental activity,” Moen said. The rhythmic shuffle of classes, homework, and work ensure that although not all of the details may be the same, most situations aren’t completely new environments. How you behave at one party can set a good prediction for the next one; your engagement in one class indicates how you might participate in the one tomorrow.

“Self awareness lets you have the power to decide if you behave this way or not,” he said.

Normalizing the idea of purposeful mental health care is what Marblesapp strives for, not the return on financial investment or becoming the newest app craze.

facebook.com:marblesapp

“If everything were just to crash and burn right now, I would be disappointed, and I would grieve, but I wouldn’t view it as a failure,” Moen said. He said he doesn’t believe in failure; everything is a learning opportunity. What would crush him, though, is if a “user reaches out and nobody else extends a hand. That’s what [Marblesapp] is there for. A community of people.”

Marblessapp | Screenshot

Marblessapp | Screenshot

The trouble with forums is that while the team of Marblesapp can contribute and post, app users will have to look past their internal analysis and put themselves out there to an anonymous, invisible community that may or may not be there to catch them. The hope is that as the app is downloaded more, more people will reach out in the forum area to say—if nothing else—“I hear you. You matter.”

To raise awareness of the app, Moen’s team is amping up for a full semester of outreach to publications, student groups, and University administration. Even with plans for events and email mentions, the little blue- and orange-striped marble app has a lot of clutter to overcome to get students to pay attention. Ben Vaske, Marblesapp’s PR intern, said he realizes this. Still, he said he believes the product will lead the way.

“The real good stuff will stick around; the noise will just fade away,” Vaske said.

Marblesapp is about changing how people think of themselves. For Moen’s personal life, that meant realizing, “I’m not a piece of shit.” An alcohol and substance abuse counselor that Moen had contacted for an Active Minds event shared a mantra with him.

“As I’m walking to class, left foot, right foot, I’m not a piece of shit, I’m not a piece of shit,” Moen said. “It’s like building every skill. The way water carves a canyon. It’s very slowly. If you want to divert water in a different direction, you have to dig deeper than that groove.”

Little by little, day by day, Marblesapp wants you to realize that you’re more than just your resume or your academics. Start saying no to things that will make you over-scheduled, and start prioritizing health over getting every assignment detail perfect. Start carving your canyon in a new direction.

As you watch your Marblesapp’s trend lines change on your weekly report, and your monthly report, think about what you’re doing in your life to cause that difference. Little decisions can have a large impact on your life. Perhaps this app’s gentle reminders will give you the proof and encouragement to keep at it.