Hacking Mental Health: 4 Important Goals

Last weekend I volunteered as a mental health mentor at the Hack Mental Health event in San Francisco. This first-of-its-kind event was buzzing with energy. When I got there, I saw teams deep in discussion and coding away on their laptops. I registered and almost immediately starting talking with a team that was building a mood mapping app (try saying that 5 times really fast). We talked about ways to visualize moods, and help users feel better by sharing their mood trends with loved ones.

As the day went on, I mentored a variety of teams and learned a lot about technology and the constraints around designing for mental health. Teams were working on depression, chronic pain, relationship troubles, and anxiety, but they weren’t sure how to ask the right questions, or design their apps to produce meaningful and motivating outputs after an initial survey. Tech folks don’t have mental health or behavioral science expertise, and mental health experts are not necessarily techies, so this hackathon was perfect. Bringing together these different bodies of knowledge is a sure way to foster innovative solutions.

Lightning talks before dinner affirmed what I was thinking throughout the day: human connection is very important. Using technology, which can harm mental health, to improve mental health is a fine and juicy challenge. Speakers discussed topics such as how to cope with a loved one’s suicide, how to get college students to talk about and reduce anxiety, how to use virtual reality to heal phobias, and how to listen to people in ways that bring healing. In all the case studies presented, connecting with others helped tremendously.

In particular, 4 goals stood out from these talks that all of us designing digital solutions for mental health should keep in mind:

  1. Focus on efficacy: Don’t get swept away by what the technology can do, but ground the technology in sound science and the user’s needs so you can effectively solve the problem you’ve identified and chosen to design for. This requires a transdisciplinary team that is humble, coachable, and open to changing course.
  2. Build in human connection: Use the technology to help people connect with each other in person or via phone or some other medium. Human connection is imperative to heal mental health issues.
  3. Create and track meaning: Both designers and users assign meaning to different visuals, words, and other parts of an app, so make sure you’re matching your users’ meaning and guiding them toward positive change. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an excellent resource for doing this well.
  4. Have clarity on your scope: Decide what aspect of mental health you will focus on, whether it’s broad or very specific, and stay true to that in your design, piloting, and implementation. Thanks to the effervescent Traci Ruble for this insight.

The most acute tensions that I could sense at this hackathon were between technology and human connection, and in the gaps between expertise areas. I would love to see more structured and facilitated team-building prior to and after future hackathons to help build team cohesion and pave the path toward more innovation, both human and technological. I’d also love to see some teams explore the connections between diet and mental health.

A big shout out to Clare Kennedy Purvis at WELL Women, and to Stephen Cognetta, co-founder of Hack Mental Health, for organizing this important event. To read more about the hackathon, including who won, check out his article.

Share with me your ideas and experience in mental health and technology – I’m always learning and would love to hear from you.

It was a captive audience and a full house during the lightning talks at Hack Mental Health in San Francisco.

It was a captive audience and a full house during the lightning talks at Hack Mental Health in San Francisco.



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