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Grant helps African-American girls reduce anxiety


By Stephanie L. Langguth
Assistant Director of Advancement Communications
Kent State University

Group of teen girls smile and hold certificates
The S.U.N. program was designed to help African-American adolescent girls manage stress and anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million U.S. adults age 18 and older – 18 percent of the U.S. population. While many studies indicate higher rates of anxiety and depression in African-American women, those studies also indicate their rate of seeking treatment is significantly lower than average.

Now, Kent State University faculty members have developed an innovative app to help teenage girls manage stress as part of a larger intervention program. Kent State professor and director of Kent State's Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans (PRADAA), Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, has dedicated the majority of her career to studying and finding solutions to this issue. The national award-winning psychologist and author is a leading expert on anxiety disorders among African-Americans. Through her efforts, and with the support of a $13,900 grant from the Women's Endowment Fund of Akron Community Foundation, the Sisters United Now (S.U.N.) program was born.

S.U.N., a culturally infused intervention designed to help black adolescent girls ages 12-15 manage stress and anxiety, was born from PRADAA's adult program, Sisters Offering Support (SOS), whose objective is to help adult black women cope with anxiety and stress.

Women in the SOS program consistently told Neal-Barnett that this was needed for teenagers, because if they would have had this when they were teens, it would have made a profound difference in their lives going forward. Neal-Barnett took this advice seriously and began her mission to bring S.U.N. to these teenage girls.

How S.U.N. works

First, the girls attend four sister circle (group) sessions designed to help them identify their stressors. These sessions help them to recognize and manage these stressors, and to understand the positive and negative thought cycle.

During the sessions they also create a vision statement for themselves – how they see themselves in a positive way. Once their vision statement is complete, they choose a favorite popular song and replace the song's lyrics with the words from their mission statement.

Woman wraps her arm around girl wearing paper crown

After their sessions, they record their song and can play it back via the Build Your Own Theme Song (BYOTS)© app. When they are stressed, they listen to their song to help them push out negative thoughts and replace them with their own positive words and phrases.

"Music is so powerful. When you are stressed and when you are anxious, there are two things that happen," says Neal-Barnett. "First, you have a physical body reaction. But once that's over, what keeps you stressed and what keeps you anxious is your mind because you have those negative thoughts.

"When they are stressed, the theme song app lets them acknowledge it and helps them push out the negative thoughts and change their thinking to positive thoughts." The app also sends push alerts to help the girls monitor their thinking. The push alert consists of a survey with questions designed to gauge the girls' moods, such as "Only good things lie before me" and "I have little control over things in my life."

The girls rate their feelings on a scale of 1-10. If their mood and thoughts are negative, the app encourages the girls to play their song. After listening to their song, they can replay it if their mood has not improved. They can also choose to take the survey on their own without prompting from a push alert.

In developing the program, Neal-Barnett enlisted the support of Kent State school of psychology graduate student Kallie Petitti, who helped Neal-Barnett rewrite the intervention to make it more teen-friendly. Dr. Arden Ruttan and students in Kent State's computer science department also contributed to the development of the app.

Petitti also led the program's field tests, which consisted of three test groups, including the students from the John R. Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron. The team made adjustments to the app based on what was learned after each test group.

S.U.N. is bringing more light than Neal-Barnett and Petitti could have hoped for. "There are so many more stresses now for adolescents and teens," Petitti says. "Adding personally meaningful words to their favorite song makes the song so much more powerful. The girls would light up when they listened to their song."

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