Chris Rhyss Edwards was standing on top of a seven-storey building, thinking about jumping, when he heard his phone ping.
“I was actually interrupted by an SMS from a mate asking, ‘Are you okay?’ I’m here because of that SMS,” says the ADF veteran and founder of tech start-up Soldier.ly.
That moment was a turning point for Edwards, a former combat engineer and peacekeeper in the Australian Army – and not only because it saved his life. It was also the launching pad for a world-first with the UTS Neuroscience Research Unit, led by Associate Professor Sara Lal, that’s helping people deal with stress.
Called uStress, the project will produce a series of algorithms that, when embedded into the uStress smart watch app, will monitor the wearer’s physiological and biometric data to identify signs of stress.
“When it registers an indicator of stress, it vibrates on your arm in the first instance and says, ‘I’m noticing some stress. Are you OK?’ If you say no, the app will take you through a guided breathing exercise until your stress levels drop,” Edwards says.
“If you’re really stressed, it prompts you to open the partner app on your smartphone and go through a guided meditation to help calm you down. But, if you’re in a chronic state of stress, it can either automatically ping five of your friends to alert them that you might need help or give you the option to call a national helpline.”
While the idea for uStress was solid, Edwards couldn’t make it a reality on his own. Instead, he turned to the Defence Innovation Network, a university-led consortium that supports research engagement within the defence sector.
It was here that Edwards met UTS Associate Professor Sara Lal, whose expertise in neurosciences, medical physiology, analyses and health sensor and algorithm development was a perfect fit for the project.
“I’d been talking to my networks, and Sara’s name came up as an expert in this area of research. She’s crazy passionate about the space and the project, so that was really exciting, and it just kind of went from there,” he says.
“Chris’s passion to help veterans via a smartwatch-based application aligned extremely well with my and my team’s expertise and our drive to develop unique, portable and deployable health sensors,” Lal adds.
This world-first continuous, real-time stress monitoring project will deliver three studies over the next 12 months. The first will focus on civilians; the second, a partnership with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defence, will target veterans; and the third will look at police offers working in New South Wales.
In each study, 100 participants will complete a lab/field study, answer neuropsychological questions and undertake a stress test to help the research team better understand their physiological responses to stress. The resulting data will be used to develop algorithms for different user groups.
While the idea for uStress was originally to support defence force veterans suffering from mental illness and moral injury, it quickly became apparent the concept had potential for global application – the uStress prototype was announced as one of four global winners in the inaugural Zurich Innovation World Championship, and Zurich Insurance, Fitbit Health Solutions and the Department of Defence have all signed on as project partners.
“This started off as a pet project for veterans, because we want to keep our guys and girls alive, but recent workplace wellness data actually suggests that 30 per cent of employees are dealing with chronic stress, anxiety or depression. It’s a global problem,” Edwards says.
If this article has raised concerns for you, help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467.