Students start CS + Mental Health to improve mental health

Jan. 21, 2016, 1:03 a.m.

This month, five undergraduates launched CS + Mental Health (CS + MH), a new student group that aims “to inspire people to act and at the same time provide avenues for them to act” to improve mental health.

The organization, conceived just last quarter and developed over winter break, will both advocate awareness of mental health issues and support mental health research on campus by connecting projects with the technology-savvy students they need.

“You have a lot of researchers that have interesting questions but don’t have the technical abilities to construct them,” said Nathaniel Stockham ‘12 M.A. ‘15 Ph.D. ‘20, a researcher at the Stanford Bipolar Clinic who acts as an advisor to CS + Mental Health. “They don’t have the technical background; they don’t know how to ask for help; they don’t know whether projects are technically feasible or not.”

CS + MH grew out of a single mental health-oriented technology project from last fall. Four of the group’s five founding members—David Lim ’18, Matthew Caffet ‘19, Sydney Maples ’17, and Anika Nagpal ‘18—met while working with Stockham on his Pebble Watch project. Stockham’s smartwatch can track movement and sleep to help diagnose bipolar disorder.

At Stockham’s suggestion, the students began to discuss expanding beyond the watch project and forming a larger group.   

CS + Mental Health offers 11 projects for this quarter, which range in subject from eating and sleep disorders to Alzheimer’s to childhood anxiety.

Lim stated that their projects fall into two broad categories: those that improve diagnosis by making it more quantitative and objective, and those that improve the “scalability” of care given to patients—for example, by easing Alzheimer’s caregiving with an app that enables more regular communication between doctor and patient.

When Lim and the other student leaders reached out to psychiatry and psychology labs over break, they received a tremendous response from professors, most of whom were very receptive towards collaborating with the students.

A number of CS + Mental Health’s projects — such as Project Teen Screen, which uses web-based surveys to diagnose mental illnesses in teenagers — were already in progress but lacked the required technical assistance to make updates or move forward. Projects were stalled due to a lack or shortage of technical staff, said Neil Singh ’18, the other founding member of CS + MH.

“When we reached out to [many of the labs], they were like ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity for something we’ve wanted to do for a really long time,’” Singh said.

Singh and the rest of the group hope that CS + MH will serve as a link between the Stanford Medical School and the computer science department.

“There’s just not enough cross-talk between the med school and the CS department, and so, we’re facilitating that,” Singh said.

All of the group leaders emphasized that education and outreach are just as integral to CS + Mental Health as their research projects.

“Our goals are pretty 50-50 split between supporting projects and doing advocacy,” Lim said.

Singh, who will lead these advocacy efforts, said that in the future they hope to host a speaker series featuring individuals from the psychology and psychiatry departments as well as from outside of Stanford. They also plan to sponsor a mental health prize at the February hackathon TreeHacks.

“We are really interested in people who don’t necessarily have CS skills. We’re looking  for people who are passionate about mental health,” Singh said.

This primary focus on mental health also differentiates CS + MH from other campus groups such as CS + Social Good, Lim and Nagpal said.

“They are going from the CS direction toward non-profits, and we’re going from the research end out toward CS,” Lim said.

None of the five founding members are computer science majors, although many of their majors involve computer science. What unites them is their interest in innovating and improving mental health.

“For me, like many people in this group, it’s affected our personal lives, our friends and family,” Nagpal said. “When I heard about the bipolar wearable psychiatry thing, I thought of all the people I know who are affected by bipolar disorder and how something like this could impact each and every one of their lives.”

Contact Simar Malhotra at simar ‘at’ and Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

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