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App to boost ear health and mental wellbeing in Indigenous communities

An app that makes it fun for Aboriginal children to enhance their hearing and mental health, developed by Monash University researchers in collaboration with Curtin University and Ear Science Institute Australia, has received almost $1.5 million from Western Australia’s Future Health Research and Innovation Fund. 

SoundSmiles app project lead, health technology researcher and proud Wadjak/Ballardong Noongar man Associate Dean (Indigenous) Professor Christopher Lawrence from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology (IT) said Aboriginal children experience ear disease and hearing loss at rates at least ten times higher than non-Aboriginal children. 

“The impacts of ear disease can drastically change the trajectory of a child’s life. Young people who have hearing loss are more likely to experience social and emotional problems,” Professor Lawrence said. 

Researchers and clinicians from Monash University, the Ear Science Institute Australia and Curtin University co-designed the culturally sensitive SoundSmiles app along with Western Australia-based Aboriginal medical services organisations Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS) and South West Aboriginal Medical Service (SWAMS).

As detailed in the SoundSmiles report released this year, primary school-aged children can be guided by their teachers to answer daily questions about their hearing and mental health, through the app. 

The app also aims to provide information and engage the students in activities related to their ears and well-being in order to raise their awareness regarding these important aspects of their health.

Professor Lawrence said SoundSmiles capitalises on the increasing use of mobile technologies by children in Aboriginal communities. 

“The kids enjoy using tablets and, through the SoundSmiles app, they’ll learn skills and develop better connections with expert services which impact their ear and mental health positively,” Professor Lawrence said.   

Along with building children’s independence with health-promoting behaviours, the app intends to increase their digital literacy skills.

SoundSmiles will also have dashboards for teachers, parents and clinicians. Teachers will receive up-to-date health information about individuals and the whole class, with the app also recommending classroom strategies based on the students’ daily responses. 

Co-investigator on the SoundSmiles project and mental health interventions expert Professor Bronwyn Myers from Curtin University said there is genuine desire within remote communities to build connections around mental and ear health. 

“We have been inspired by teachers’ passion to support their students’ wellbeing and the high engagement from diverse sectors for this digital tool,” Professor Myers said. 

Ear Science Institute Australia CEO Adjunct Associate Professor Sandra Bellekom said it is vital that Western Australia takes practical steps given the influence ear health has on mental health in Aboriginal communities. 

“We are proud at Ear Science to bring together our strong links with the Pilbara and Southwest  community and our links across academia to co-create inventive solutions that will improve quality of life for Indigenous children. Research that has real-life impact is our mission,” Associate Professor Bellekom said. 

“This unique, cross-disciplinary collaboration of researchers and remote health, education and community workers can make a real difference. We thank the Chief Executive Officers of PAMS and SWAMS, Robby Chibawe and Lesley Nelson, respectively, for their support and contribution.”

SoundSmiles was awarded funding for Phase 2 of the project as part of the Western Australian government’s Innovation Challenge: Child and Youth Mental Health program that invests to accelerate novel projects which address an important mental health need among young people within the state. 

The innovation program grant will enable the SoundSmiles project to further develop and test the app, deliver it within the Pilbara and South-West communities who co-designed it, and then release more broadly for other areas across Western Australia.   

Image by Freepik.

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