Stanford Mental Health Innovation Challenge

Stanford Mental Health Innovation Challenge

For local Gunn High School student Stephanie Zhang, the topic of mental health has been at the top of her mind over the past several years following a number of teen suicides in the Palo Alto community.

When she heard about the Stanford Mental Health Innovation Challenge (SMHIC), a two-day event for incoming tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders, she jumped at the opportunity to apply. The “hackathon-style” design sprint, which was put on by the Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences’ Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing and Stanford+ Mental Health student group, was aimed at deepening participants’ understanding of the mental health challenges that affect San Mateo and Santa Clara counties while developing innovative ideas to tackle these issues.

“I’ve always thought mental health wasn’t recognized by society to the regard that it should be” Stephanie said. “And I’d never heard of a hackathon-type event that is dedicated to social good. I thought the combination of the two would allow me to push my boundaries and think of solutions to address the topic of mental health within my community.”

The event was held on June 24 and 25 at Li Ka Shing Center at Stanford University, and it brought together approximately 90 teens from more than 20 different high schools throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. In advance of the event, students applied to respond to one of five different challenges focused on destigmatizing mental health issues and increasing access and education around mental health services.

“We were very excited to do this event for a number of reasons,” explained Steven Adelsheim, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing and associate chair for community partnerships in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. “Our goal was to continue to increase the literacy of young people in our community around mental health-related issues, and we wanted to do that in a way that would provide them with an opportunity to meet other students in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties who have a shared interest in the topic, while simultaneously providing them with training in innovative and critical thinking.”

Students were divided into 20 groups of four or five participants, and each team was assigned a mentor. Mentors included not only mental health professionals but also other community agency partners who work in education, technology, academia and within Stanford Medicine. Stanford undergraduate students also served as mentors. Over the course of the two-day event, teams utilized the “Do Good Well” approach, a problem-solving method created by Stanford Medicine psychiatry resident Nina Vasan that works to address the root causes of issues to impact social change. With guidance from their mentors, teams devised unique and innovative approaches to address their specific challenge and pitched their ideas to a panel of expert judges who work in public health, health technology and medicine. One team was awarded the grand prize – a $5,000 grant to execute their idea over the course of the coming year.

Stephanie, along with three other students, was part of the winning team. Their proposal, “Mind Yo Health, Mind Yo Books!”, would organize mental health-themed book fairs for children and young adults. “We identified a lack of education about mental health issues among young people,” Stephanie said. “We wanted to create a bridge between educational tools and mental health book authors — tapping into resources that already exist but that people don’t know much about.”

SMHIC Winners

The grand prize winners proposed a series of mental health-themed book fairs for children and young adults

Judges felt the team’s idea was not only innovative but also practical and realistic.

“Making these books available to young kids will prompt conversations between kids and parents about mental health issues starting at a young age,” added Jade Sebti, another member of the grand prize team. “If children are educated about mental health at a young age, it won’t be something they see as taboo to discuss with their parents as they get older. Our goal is that this will help future generations redefine mental health as a normal part of overall health.”

Over the next year, the grand prize team, and four other winning teams, will work together under the guidance of their mentors and the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing to implement their projects within the community. The Mind Yo Books! team plans to conduct a survey among attendees before and after each book fair to understand whether attendees’ attitudes and knowledge of mental health change as a result of the events.

“The whole event gave me a great deal of hope,” Adelsheim said. “Bright, motivated, innovative young people came together as strangers and in just two days created teams that worked so well together. They developed new friendships and skills and became motivated to think about mental health solutions in a really positive way.”


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