Stanford’s Brainstorm lab works with Pinterest, others to apply product design to mental health

Sept. 16, 2019, 10:57 p.m.

Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation was founded by Nina Vasan, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, with the goal of improving mental health resources through the design and use of tech products. Vasan believes Brainstorm has succeeded where other Bay Area mental health groups have not, by connecting academic research with technology, medicine and entrepreneurship to bring thousands’ attention to mental illness and how it is viewed.

Brainstorm took a major step toward accomplishing its mission in July by collaborating with a platform that connects over 300 million users: Pinterest.

The result of the collaboration was an update on the Pinterest mobile app that displays guides for easing anxiety, such as short exercises to refocus attention and relax. These show up when users search terms indicative of stress, work anxiety and sadness. The guides are designed to teach widely applicable practices, help users feel better and help them better understand mental health.

According to Vasan, Brainstorm’s executive director, the decision to collaborate with Pinterest boiled down to overcoming the biggest barriers to one’s mental wellbeing: stigma, limited access to mental healthcare services and solutions difficult to incorporate into daily life. 

“Technology uniquely is able to overcome all these barriers, so it’s beautifully suited to transform mental health, but the products have to be designed with scientific rigor and a thorough understanding of clinical medicine,” Vasan wrote in an email to The Daily. 

According to her, Brainstorm has collaborated in the development of tech products ranging from artificial intelligence to wearable devices in the hopes of spreading mental health awareness.

“This can make a real impact on health, especially from the prevention and early intervention standpoint; statistically at least 100 million Pinners [Pinterest users] would benefit from mental health help, if even a fraction of Pinners use it, it could be more impactful than some traditional health programs,” Vasan wrote.

Brainstorm has also reached out to the makers of a variety of tech products including mobile apps, artificial intelligence and augmented reality in the past.

“Partnering with leading companies and organizations, we seamlessly integrate cutting edge academic research from across disciplines to design tech products that people love to use, with the goal of ultimately improving health and unlocking human potential,” Vasan wrote.

The group has hosted localized events including workshops, hackathons and trainings for students that are designed to raise awareness for and lift the stigma of mental illness.

Brainstorm’s ultimate goal of advancing the field of mental health innovation is a product of four main topics: research, education, product design and community building, according to Vasan. The innovative and project-based approach to real-world problems helps draw students to the program who are committed to transforming the field of mental health. 

“Stigma is getting better and students are more and more willing and eager to talk about mental health openly, and have the energy and passion to take action,” Vasan wrote.

As the internet continues to increase worldwide human connection, Brainstorm plans to partner with other groups, from local Silicon Valley tech companies to nationwide groups such as the NBA in an effort to reach specific communities and millions within those communities.

Pinterest did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Contact Claire Li at 2020claireli ‘at’

Claire was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.

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