For almost half her life, Amanda Southworth has been battling demons.
She’s fought off anorexia, anxiety and depression. And many times, when the demons overwhelmed her, she says she tried to take her own life.
“It was really like getting dug into a hole,” she said. “The longer it goes on, the less hope you have.”
Now, Amanda’s on a path to recovery — and she wants to take others who are dealing with the same emotions with her.
Her weapon of choice? An app.
Amanda, who’s only 16, has developed AnxietyHelper, an app that features games and exercises to help people through panic attacks.
It also utilizes a user’s location services to find life-saving resources nearby and includes how-to’s for loved ones trying to help.
“I kind of decided, ‘Why don’t I make the tool that I really wish that I had?'” she told CNN. “And so I did.”
She’ll be the first to admit that resources alone aren’t the solution to this complex inner turmoil.
“It’s about how we treat the people who use them,” she said. “It’s not a matter of they don’t have the number, but they’re so afraid of what people will think that they’re not going to dial it.”
But, she believes, apps like hers are a small first step.
The Demons Attacked Early
It was around the 4th grade when Amanda first began to develop an eating disorder, she says. But it was at the start of junior high when a family move placed her in a new school that things began to spiral.
“I went from this really small mountain town to this really big suburban area,” Amanda, who now lives in Los Angeles, said, “It was like an alien just kind of dropped on Earth.”
Soon Amanda started to have her first run-ins with depression and anxiety. A few months later, she began contemplating suicide, she said.
“It was kind of a cascading effect all at once at the very beginning and then it never went away,” she said.
The stigma against seeking help kept her from reaching out, she said. And when she did reach out, some counselors were dismissive, she said.
“A lot of the counselors I went to were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s just a part of being a teenager,'” she said. “I kind of just thought that everybody just wanted to die 110 percent of the time.”
Relief Through Coding
Amidst all the chaos, Amanda became part of the school robotics team and discovered an unlikely outlet to help her channel her emotions: programming.
“In mental illness you kind of have these destructive tendencies and these feelings of powerlessness … I think coding is the exact opposite,” she said. “With coding, you are the master of that computer. You are that computer’s god.”
Then, a stint at the Kode with Klossy coding camp, really made Amanda evaluate her potential.
“By the time that I got to that coding camp I really decided that I wanted to put these skills to use and I wanted to change the person that I was,” she said. “I decided I wanted to help people.”
An Idea Was Born
That same summer, she formed the idea for AnxietyHelper.
She said she pored through books learning about techniques and tools geared toward those feeling suicidal. She spoke to those she knew with mental illnesses about what they’d most value in an app. When AnxietyHelper came out, Amanda was heartened to see it being used.
“I suddenly put myself in charge of this software that a substantial amount of people were using and I realized, ‘Oh, some people do need me,'” she said.
Dr. Adam Haim of the National Institute of Mental Health says applications such as this are a step in the right direction. He’s overseeing research on the benefits of mobile programming on mental health
“Having components of an app that are engaging and sustaining is integral to successful mental care,” he told CNN.
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A Career Is Launched
From there, Amanda’s career blossomed. She dropped out of high school to begin her software nonprofit Astra Labs. Since then, she’s also created a second app and has several others in the works.
“Both her mother and I realized that this is an unusual circumstance and that I don’t think high school was addressing her curiosity,” her father, George Southworth, said.
To pay for expenses, Amanda saved her allowance, Christmas money and worked side jobs, like babysitting and app design.
Then, a few months ago, she got some great news.
She received a $25,000 grant from TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund, which invests in young entrepreneurs who use business to improve lives.
As Amanda tries to reach kids struggling with their own demons, her father has a message for the parents:
“Parents need to understand your kids not going through a phase. This is real, and this is dangerous, and it requires it your undivided attention.”
Written by Ursula Perano and Saeed Ahmed for CNN.
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