Our Journey

In 2018, our team from the University of Auckland began creating a digital tool to help young people enhance their mental wellbeing, using proven strategies to manage stress, resolve conflict, deal with negative thoughts and strong emotions.

Young people told us it can be hard to ask for help. A trusted digital tool can be an easier and safer place to start, especially if it makes them feel heard and cared for. They also told us they wanted a tool that was uniquely Aotearoa New Zealand, reflecting their culture and values, and that was easy and fun to use. 

Working with young people, clinicians and IT experts including leading tech studio RUSH, we created Headstrong, a chatbot system that’s an accessible and engaging user-centred solution made for today’s teens.

How it works

A chatbot simulates a conversation and allows people to interact with a digital guide as if they were communicating with a real person. 

In Headstrong, we make it easy and engaging for young people to learn techniques for supporting mental health and wellbeing via short interactions with the chatbot. We use stories, motivational whakatauki (proverbs), audio tracks, infographics, mini games and more to make the content more relatable.

With Headstrong, rangatahi can choose from three chatbot courses:

Paparahi |

This course lets users practise daily skills for thinking and feeling better. It’s like a daily check-in and chat with a helpful friend, practising daily skills for thinking and feeling better.


This course starts a kōrero with Aroha, a virtual guide. Aroha gives users quick tips on dealing with everyday issues in tough times, helping them navigate what life throws at them.

Hiki Taumahatanga |
Stress Detox

This course is a 21-day challenge, where users learn to deal with stress head on by understanding their feelings, sparking positive thoughts and taking action.

The science behind Headstrong

Headstrong was developed by a team of experts in digital innovation for youth mental health from the University of Auckland. The tool’s content draws on Māori, Pacific and Western science. We use Te Whare Tapa Whā as our holistic wellbeing  model. 

The psychological strategies used in Headstrong are based on culturally responsive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), positive psychology (e.g. gratitude), mindfulness, interpersonal skills, and substance use harm-minimisation strategies. These strategies are used by counsellors and psychologists first, because the evidence says they work for most people, most of the time. 

To make sure Headstrong makes a positive impact in young people’s lives, we use data and user feedback to improve it. We share our research findings in peer-reviewed journals. You can read more here:


Headstrong is an ongoing project at the University of Auckland, led by our expert team.


Karolina Stasiak

Research Psychologist and Senior Lecturer
Department of Psychological Medicine

Karolina has extensive experience in creating and evaluating digital tools, including SPARX. She has been involved hands-on in the development of Headstrong from its inception and is leading this project.

Tania Cargo

Ngāti Marui, Ngāti Manu, Ngapuhi 
Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer 
Department of Psychological Medicine and School of Psychology

Tania is the co-theme lead of the Resilient Teen Theme of A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea National Science Challenge funded by MBIE, alongside Sarah Hetrick, and has led the development of Kia Haumanu. She leads our team’s efforts to ensure that the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi are upheld, and to ensure that the research for Māori rangatahi and their whānau is based on mana enhancing practices of partnership, participation, and protection.

Naomi Davies

Research Fellow
Department of Psychological Medicine

Naomi is interested in nutrition and how gut microbiota influences emotional wellbeing and stress. She is currently involved in managing the Headstrong project, as well as a nutritional intervention and stress study.

Sarah Hopkins

Research Fellow
Department of Psychological Medicine

Sarah coordinates the evaluation of Headstrong through collaboration with investigators and developers and through supervision of graduate students and research assistants. She is also co-leading the co-design and development of a Physical Activity promotion chatbot, with funding from the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge.

Sarah Hetrick

Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor
Department of Psychological Medicine

Sarah is an expert in youth mental health, has co-led the development of Kia Haumanu with Tania Cargo, and is the co-theme lead of the Resilient Teen Theme of A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea National Science Challenge funded by MBIE. She brings clinical expertise to our team and experience in the development of services and tools for young people’s mental health.

Jim Warren

School of Computer Science

Jim is a senior scientist in the Resilient Teen Theme of A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea National Science Challenge funded by MBIE, with 30 years’ experience in health information system research and implementation. He contributes to the technological direction of the chatbot system, and advises on software development and technical issues, including those relevant to data storage and privacy.

Kiani Stevenson

Ngapuhi, Saoluafata, Palauli
Research Assistant
Department of Psychological Medicine

Kiani is a postgraduate psychology student with a particular interest in indigenous wellbeing. She supports our team to ensure that Te Tiriti O Waitangi is upheld. She has experience working with rangatahi and supports their engagement with our research.

Sarah Bodmer

Research Assistant
Department of Psychological Medicine

Sarah is a postgraduate student studying the intersecting fields of digital communication technologies and public health interventions. She has a background in communications and social media, and brings relevant industry experience to the team.

Nicola Ludin

Research Fellow
Department of Psychological Medicine

Nicola oversees ongoing innovation for Kia Haumanu. She is a trained circadian clock and sleep scientist and leads a project on the Sleep Ninja app, to support sleep and mental wellbeing for rangatahi.

David Lim

Research Assistant
Department of Psychological Medicine

David is studying to become a Health Psychologist, with a keen interest in psychedelic research. He has helped develop Whitu, a well-being app to help rangatahi cope with the stress of the pandemic. With a background in IT, David helps coordinate the development of Headstrong.

Casian Ailincai

Research Assistant
Department of Psychological Medicine

Casian is a postgraduate health sciences student focused on the use of modern technologies to support population mental health. She supports our team to ensure LGBTQIA+ equity and is co-designing data collection methods with transgender rangatahi.

Puna Whakaata Maniapoto-Love

Ngāti Konohi, Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngā Paerangi,Tūhourangi, Ngāti Pikiao
Research Assistant
Department of Psychological Medicine

Puna is a fourth year Law and Arts student at Waipapa Taumata Rau. She is dedicated to the revitalisation of te reo Māori and te āo Māori. Puna supports the team to ensure that Te Tiriti o Waitangi is being upheld and provides a Māori perspective on current kaupapa. She has experience in her ao Māori and is a fluent speaker of te reo Māori.

Software engineering and design

Chester Holt-Quick

Software Engineer

Chester has a leading role in the co-development of the underlying base technology supporting our chatbot. His Honours dissertation explored methods for deep learning in health chatbot design. Prior to being lured into the domain of computing, Chester worked as a medical doctor for almost a decade. He is also the CEO of Kekeno, a start-up company focused on custom software development in the health and wellbeing domain.

Etienne Naude

Software Developer

Etienne has a background in computer science and design, focussing on creating great user experiences. He is leading the front-end development of the Headstrong app.

Headshot of Li

Ye Li

Software Developer

Li is a developer with a strong focus on web apps and mobile apps. He has a background in science and has been involved in development of the Headstrong app.

Luke Polson

Software Developer

Luke is a backend software developer with a focus on analytics. He has a background in mathematics and computer science and is developing the reporting and analytics functionality for Headstrong. 

Special thanks to

Rawiri Wharemate
Sally Merry
Grant Christie
Ruth Williams 
Matt Shepherd


Within Headstrong, different virtual friends are available for users to choose as their guide. We worked with RUSH, rangatahi and the artists at Watermark Creative to create a range of characters that represented the diversity of young people in Aotearoa.









The rangatahi we worked with gave us great insights into what it’s like to be a teenager today and what was important to them. They wanted someone they could confide in without fear of social consequences in their life; someone who understood their culture and the stresses of being a teenager; and someone they could relate to and look up to.