mHealth Challenge inspires students to address mental illness

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To provide support for those dealing with mental illness, students in the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH) at Penn State and other majors worked together to create a concept for an app that encourages its users to seek mental health help when needed in a safe and confidential way.

Inspired by the issue of stigmatization of mental illness, the app, "Salama" — which means “safe” in Swahili — was created as part of the 2016 mHealth Challenge. The challenge, which took place Nov. 13 and 14 during Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, is an annual event that encourages students to explore societal health issues and brainstorm mobile apps that could positively impact individuals’ health.

The students were tasked with collaborating to develop low-fidelity prototypes for mobile health applications.

Each team identified a social health need for a target audience and then developed an app to address that need. Over a two-night period, the teams pitched their proposals to a panel of judges chosen for their expertise in health care and business.

“Mental health is a topic not widely discussed in the black community, and many individuals feel ashamed or embarrassed to speak on topics such as feeling depressed or dealing with anxiety,” said BBH senior Christopher Koilor, one of the creators of the app. “We also talked about how this problem is in all communities, including college-aged populations. We were also inspired by our peers after talking to some students we know personally.”

Co-creators included BBH student William Okrafo-Smart and College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) students Ifedunni Segun-Abugan and Will Simon.

Creating a safe space for those dealing with mental illness

The app includes four components to help individuals deal with mental illness: self-assessment, community, resources, and education. The students implemented a self-assessment to allow each user to complete a diagnostic survey about symptoms they may be experiencing. 

“This is primarily for users who have not been clinically diagnosed by a health care professional in order for them to grasp an idea of what mental illness they are dealing with and the severity,” Koilor said.

The community component idea includes chat rooms where people dealing with mental illness can share their stories and gain a sense of community by speaking with others dealing with similar circumstances. 

Users would be placed in chat rooms based on demographics such as sexuality, gender, and race/ethnicity, Koilor said. These chat rooms would also be moderated by peer facilitators to help create healthy and positive conversation. 

“This would then empower individuals to seek external help or resources and eventually lead to optimal recovery for those dealing with mental illness through a social support intervention,” Koilor said.

Combining talents and preparing for the future

Koilor said part of what made mHealth so unique and exciting was working with others on the team who provided experience and expertise in different areas than his own.

“The challenge gave me the opportunity to think in ways I would not have before, such as developing a feasible prototype and thinking about user-friendly aspects of the application,” Koilor said. “I was also able to learn about the software and thinking process that the IST students were using to create the prototype which was new for me. I enjoyed gaining different views from my group members because everyone provided valuable input that helped create our final product for the competition.”

Working with students from IST also allowed Koilor to focus on team communication and consider the technical aspects of the app, not only the health problem. 

“This experience also developed my public speaking skills in front of a large audience, and helped me to gain confidence in presenting information,” Koilor said.

Koilor said competing in mHealth provided him with critical thinking and experience for the future, as he plans to pursue a career as a health care professional after graduation.

“Through participating in mHealth I have expanded my thinking in ways I do not utilize in the classroom,” Koilor said. “I can now say I have an understanding of how to address a health problem head on, and ultimately come up with a solution.”

“Additionally, this challenge has given me the opportunity to think about a health population and what they need, and I did not see myself doing this throughout my college years until now and I am more than pleased with the experience as a whole,” he said.

More than 50 students from BBH, IST and the College of Nursing participated in mHealth.

Salama placed third in the challenge. The first-place team included IST students Neil Vohra and Mark Hancharik, and nursing students Chelsea Midtvedt and Mallory Polakovic, who created an app for newborn babies.

The second-place team, who created an app for pediatric asthma, included IST students Maria Diamanti and Jordan Brown, and nursing students Holly Weinschenk and Maura Bacik.

Judges for the mHealth semifinals were Daniel Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State; Michelle Haffner, manager of infectious diseases and professional development, University Health Services at Penn State; and Stan Aungst, senior lecturer in security and risk analysis, College of IST at Penn State.

In the finals, judges included Sam Hume, head of Data Exchange Technologies, CDISC; Matt Rhodes, managing director, 1855 capital; and Doug Carroll, Mount Nittany Health System.

In addition to Costello, faculty advisers included Beth Cutezo in the College of Nursing, and JoAnn Foley-DeFiore and Joseph Gyekis in the Department of Biobehavioral Health.

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Last Updated December 07, 2016