She Lost Too Many Friends to Suicide. Now Her App Is Saving Lives

It wasn’t one death in particular that jolted Amanda Johnstone into action. It was what linked all those suicide notes that proved impossible to ignore. “They all thought they were a burden and it was too hard to keep reaching out,” says Johnstone, 33, who grew up on the Australian island of Tasmania, and had three close friends and nine people from her wider social circle take their own lives.

Johnstone’s experiences were sadly all too commonplace. Tasmania, population 530,000, has the highest youth suicide rate in Australia: 45 victims for every 100,000 people in 2015, as economic hardship, social alienation and underfunded social services take their toll. (In the U.S., it was 14.6 youth suicides per 100,000 in 2017.) But mental health issues can strike anywhere; more than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization, but fewer than half of them receive any treatments for depression.’

In an attempt to harness her grief, Johnstone began arranging her friends to routinely check in with an unobtrusive mental health report. Each day at 4pm, they would grade their own mental wellbeing one to ten in an SMS sent to the group. This flagged when individuals were feeling depressed and vulnerable without actively having to seek help.

Alana Holmberg for TIME

The simple scheme was such a success that Johnstone decided to take it global—launching a free peer-support app that enables people to check in with five friends daily. Be A Looper, which launched in November 2017, encourages users to give themselves a similar numerical rating for their mental wellbeing, with others in their loop also checking in. With a bright and lively look that borrows from hit apps like Candy Crush and Snapchat, it’s a quick and understated way to stay engaged despite our modern, frenetic lives.

“We are all on our phones all the time, so it made so much sense to create something that’s already in people’s hands, which gives them that nudge to reach out and take a little bit of care of each other,” says Johnstone, who previously owned a clothing store and worked in brand management.

With a staff of 35, Be A Looper has spread to 76 countries—Australia, the U.S. and U.K. are top for users—and was nominated for the 2018 Global Mobile Awards. Nearly 20,000 people have flagged suicidal feelings to their loop, allowing their support network to rally around, and to date, Johnstone says no user of the app has taken their own life. There’s little doubt this simple routine has saved lives. “It’s more of a burden to bury someone,” says Johnstone. “You can never forget those people for the rest of your life.”

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