Update 13/8/18 – myCompass is now in Version 2.0. It has had a significant facelift. The basic sections and functions of the site are the same, but the visuals, layout and quality of the site has improved dramatically. The review below is still relevant in terms of content, but be mindful that it looks different now.
I spent a couple of days having a browse around the myCompass website/ web app.
myCompass was created by the researchers and clinicians at the Black Dog Institute. It is a free web and mobile app designed to treat mild to moderate anxiety, stress and depression.
It was developed because of repeated findings showing that that many people who experience anxiety, stress and depression do not seek help. This might be because of embarrassment, location (e.g rural/ remote), or time. A web-based self-help intervention was seen as a potentially powerful type of intervention for these people as it is anonymous, can be used anywhere there is an internet connection, and can be used anytime of the day.
I thought this program might be relevant to tertiary students because we know this is a group that often do not seek help. For example, you might be sitting there right now, reading this article, struggling emotionally but not yet ready to ask for help. If that is the case, this might be a really good starting point for you.
Before recommending apps and programs to others, I like to spend a little bit of time using the program myself. So I created an account and spent a few hours working through some of the content.
Shared below are some of my thoughts and observations. I hope these help you decide whether the program might be helpful for you.
The goal of myCompass is to provide an effective, confidential, accessible, and personalised program for individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and/or stress.
The website is designed to work neatly on desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones and tablets. Regardless of device, you access the site by visiting myCompass and then logging in. The site is designed to optimise itself to the device. I found it displayed well on both my mobile (iPhone 7, and desktop)
I found the registration process relatively uncomplicated, but you do need to provide information like email and phone number in order to take full advantage of the reminders that the program uses. Usage of the site is limited to those 18+.
I should note that the confirmation emails and SMS took a little while to come through, which meant, in total, the registration process took me 24 hours. Your experience might be different.
There are basically six things you can do on the site.
Mood and lifestyle tracking
Tracking involves keeping a record of different aspects of your thoughts, feelings, mood and lifestyle. It is useful for helping you identify any patterns in how you are feeling, but also to track whether you are getting better or worse over time.
myCompass allows you to track 3 factors at a time, and you can select from thoughts/feelings, health and lifestyle or create a factor of your own to track such as a strength (something you want to use or do more) or a challenge (something troubling you).
Whilst not as good as mobile apps dedicated to tracking specific items, the myCompass tracking feature does allow you to set tracking reminders (time, frequency and delivery method: emails or SMS). Whenever you login, the site also prompts you to complete the tracking items.
The tracking feature generates graphical reports that show how the things you are tracking are changing over time.
By default the tracking reminders switch off after 4 weeks.
‘Psycho-education’ just means education about psychological factors – myCompass offers 16 of these, covering what I think is a really diverse yet focused range of topics.
There are ‘core’ modules addressing key therapy components for anxiety and depression (pleasurable activities, breathing & relaxation, solving problems and tackling unhelpful thinking).
Then there are ‘Recommended Modules’ that are based on your answers to the profiling questionnaire (see Profile below).
Finally there are ‘Other Modules’ which might be of interest but aren’t indicated specifically based on your answers to the questionnaires.
Each module is a mini-intervention in itself. These aren’t to be taken lightly.
Typically, modules consist of 3 ‘sessions’ which are completed online and then at least 2 ‘home tasks’ which translate the session content into tasks to do offline. Modules use characters and stories to illustrate the concepts being taught.
Modules are intended to be completed over a 2-3 week period and the site supports you only working on a single module at a time. This makes sense as the effectiveness of therapies like this rely on you completing the homework modules.
The Profile questionnaire is designed to be a brief measure of functioning, as well as a way for the program to determine which modules might be most appropriate for you (see ‘Recommended Modules’ above).
It assesses symptoms of depression and anxiety, explores the degree of impact of those symptoms on your daily life. It also assesses engagement in various health behaviours (e.g. sleep, good diet etc).
You can re-do the questionnaire at any point in time, to change the recommendations.
The program provides access to an online journal/diary where you can write about your thoughts and feelings. It is nothing fancy. Just a basic text entry space where you can give each entry a title, content, keywords, and attach an image.
My interpretation of what is said on the site is that no-one, including the program creators, can see what you write in the diary, so it is a completely personal space.
People who want to keep a private diary have many options from pen/paper diaries to mobile apps and web-based programs. The benefit of the diary within myCompass is having your entries about how you are feeling and coping, privately stored alongside the therapeutic components you are working on.
Throughout the psychoeducation modules, example cases are used to illustrate the different concepts. 7 individuals are profiled (John, Tahlia, Kaz, Costa, Vanessa, Rosie, and Tran). Kaz is the university student, trying to fit in study, with working, and having a social life.
The Stories section bundles these examples as well as other user stories and testimonials into a single section, which can act as a source of inspiration by understanding other people’s recovery from anxiety and depression.
Snippet are ‘facts, tips or motivational messages designed to educate, challenge or inspire you, or maybe just give you a kick start.” You can browse or search them as well as organise to have some or all of them sent to you on a regular basis via email or SMS.
I remember a colleague of mine once saying that receiving a daily dose of philosophy was one of the most helpful mental health interventions they had ever experienced. Snippets provides this exact kind of service.
In addition to the interactive Psychoeducation modules, myCompass also provides access to a range of information sheets on the following topics: alcohol, anxiety, depression, exercise, medication, nutrition, professional help, smoking, stress and trauma.
What I like
Some sites claim to be interactive and personalised but don’t really live up to the claims. myCompass does use the brief profiling questionnaire to prioritise modules it thinks are relevant to you, and gives you significant choice in the factors you track and the messages (email, SMS) that you get sent. It is possible with this program to get a pretty decent depression/anxiety treatment tailored to your needs, without having to complete excessive length questionnaires.
You can keep track of your progress through the activity summary.
There is a lot of information on the site, but it is organised in such a way that it is not overwhelming at first glance. Although the site design is a little old now, the user navigation is simple and easy to understand.
They publish a detailed privacy and confidentiality policy allowing you to make an informed decision about how your data is used.
When I stopped using the site, I did get SMS and email reminders to see if I was still interested. I’m glad that there are built in processes to follow-up users if they stop using the site.
What I don’t like
Not so much a dislike, but just that users need to know this is an entirely self-guided program. That requires some commitment and motivation on the part of the user to keep going with the site and work through the modules. An alternative would be to do this program, with the occasional input of a face-to-face or telephone support person.
My personal experience, using the site on a fast connection, was that the site was slow to load at times. Not painfully slow, but noticeable.
I think Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to free online programs to address common mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Granted, these programs require some discipline on the part of the person, to login and work through the modules, but when you consider that a lot of what you’d learn in these programs is the same as what you’d learn from a private psychologist at upwards of $150/hour, these sites are good value.
Research shows that people have different preferences when it comes to accessing mental health support. Some prefer face-to-face supports. Others are quite happy with anonymity of online services.
If you are one of those who is ok with online treatment, myCompass is a legitimate option if you struggle with depression or anxiety.
But if you are seeing a mental health professional, you might still consider signing up to myCompass to work through the modules with the support of your therapist.