By Dana Schulman
Imagine if someone told you that you are worthless, that you are ugly, that no one will ever love you. Now imagine that person is your partner. For 1 in 3 women this will be a reality at some point in their life. Dr. Nancy Glass and her team of researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing are looking to change the lives of women living this painful reality with an app.
MyPlan is a project that began eight years ago to aid women in unhealthy and unsafe relationships. The goal of this mobile “safety decision aid” is to customize a safety plan for the individual woman. Not only does it provide her with the resources she needs, but also assist those who want to help their friends in abusive and unsafe situations but are unsure of how to do so.
The app, tested in a study of adult women all around the country, was launched in 2015. Nancy Glass and her team are currently looking to adapt MyPlan for women between the ages of 18-24: an age range three times more likely to be exposed to this behavior. According to LoveIsRespect.org, verbally and physically abusive relationships are a reality for 43% of dating college women. This statistic suggests that almost everyone has a friend, classmate or teammate who will undergo this painful experience at some point in her college career. The long-term effects of which can include cripplingly low self-esteem, isolation, depression and substance abuse. The researchers developing MyPlan hope their app will decrease this number significantly, if not all together.
MyPlan was not initially conceived as an app. According to research project coordinator Amber Clough, MyPlan has evolved significantly from its format as an online website.
“People just use technology very differently now than they did eight years ago,” she explained.
Clough has been passionate about women’s health since college and her dedication to the subject shines through when she describes the level of time and thought that has gone into developing MyPlan.
When put to the test you can see that every minute detail from graphic design to content has been carefully considered to have the greatest impact on its user.
When put to the test you can see that every minute detail from graphic design to content has been carefully considered to have the greatest impact on its user. The app has a soft blue and white color scheme. There is a strength motif throughout the design that is represented by silhouettes of women standing in commanding poses. After the user downloads the app, a personal pin number is required to access her information and ensure security. Only after this is she directed to the home screen. The title graphic is a large number 1 with a blue heart in the middle, the insignia of the One Love foundation. At the bottom it asks the user if she is using the app for her relationship or a friend’s. The process to receive a personalized safety plan is then quick and simple. There are five sections; the first section called “Relationship Violence Myths” provides accurate information to debunk misconceptions about abusive or unhealthy relationships. It addresses and corrects common harmful assumptions such as “at least my partner isn’t hitting me”, “women aren’t abusive to their female partners” and “it’s between my partner and me” without even a hint of condescension.
The next section is called “My Relationship.” It informs the woman what a healthy relationship should look like and then asks her a number of questions about her own relationship. The third section is called “My Safety,” which, based on the woman’s answers, will provide her with a “Danger Assessment.” This alerts the user to how dangerous her relationship is on a scale. There are four possibilities: variable danger, increased danger, severe danger and extreme danger. The fourth section, “My Priorities,” asks the respondents to rate their commitment to the relationship, social life, safety, privacy and studies in terms of importance by comparing each of these factors two at a time using a sliding scale. The final section, “My Plan,” tailors a specific safety plan for the woman based on her priorities and danger assessment. She is then is given information about violent and unsafe characteristics in a relationship and provided with safety information and resources to contact. The overall experience requires only ten minutes. Of course, what seems so simple is actually the end result of numerous research studies and focus groups, a process, which the MyPlan team is starting all over again to make the app more accessible to young adults.
MyPlan research assistant and PhD candidate at the School of Nursing, Karen Grace eagerly explained to me the grueling research process behind MyPlan. As of now the team is looking to recruit 300 women in Maryland or Oregon, in age range 18-24 who are either currently in unhealthy relationships or have abusive or violent ex-partners. They are also looking to recruit 300 friends of such women. These women will be randomized into two different groups, one that receives the MyPlan app and another that receives a slightly different version–one still has useful information but not quite the same level customization. These women will take a baseline survey, another survey at six months and a final survey at 12 months. These surveys contain validated questions about unsafe relationships, meaning they have been approved for use in previous studies. What the MyPlan team hopes to see is that the app has impacted these women’s use of safety strategies, meaning the group that received the actual app should have a score that reflects more informed decision making. According to Grace, previous studies have shown that women had a better grasp on their situation and a greater understanding of how to access necessary resources.
So what does a school counselor–someone with professional hands-on experience dealing with young adults–think about the app? I asked Dr. Allison Putnam, Director of the Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program (JHSAP), a counseling program for Hopkins graduate students, to review the app and offer her professional opinion. Dr. Putnam has a wealth of information about emotionally and physically abusive relationships–and she saw the app as a tremendous “first step” for women in abusive relationships to access the help they need. She excitedly described to me the features of the app she liked best–the anonymity and safety precautions, the customization, and the number of resources available. She was however concerned when she fiddled around with the app and checked yes for suicidal ideation, that it did not offer resources for potentially suicidal women. This was only a minor issue, however, in what appeared to be a very promising resource.
Unhealthy relationships can commonly become taboo subjects. Women often prefer to sweep their abuse under the rug and deal with it in isolation.
Unhealthy relationships can commonly become taboo subjects. Women often prefer to sweep their abuse unde the rug and deal with it in isolation. Stories of women living with their abuse day after day because they have nowhere to turn are all too common. According to The Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys an average of more than three women a day murdered by a partner in the United States. The stakes are too high to let women in abusive relationships suffer in violence. MyPlan offers women the opportunity to explore their options in a safe and easily accessible environment. This revolutionary app proves that when technology meets advocacy, incredible things can happen.