An inside look at Stanford’s one-of-a-kind course on mental health innovation, where students mingle with industry experts and develop business plans…

Posted: June 22, 2020 at 3:47 pm

This post was added by Alex Diaz-Granados

Over 47 million adults in the United States reported having a mental illness between 2017 and 2018, and of that 47 million, about 11 million reported having serious mental disorders.

In a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45%) of adults reported that their mental health has been negatively influenced by stress and worry around the coronavirus.

There's no doubt that the pandemic is catalyzing a mental health crisis and low clinician-to-patient ratios, varying levels of stigma, late diagnoses, increased costs, and more prevent traditional healthcare systems from tackling this issue effectively.

That's why the Stanford Brainstorm Lab at Stanford's School of Medicine created "PSYC 240: Designing for the 2 Billion Leading Innovation in Mental Health" and "PSYC 242: Mental Health Innovation Studio: Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Policy" in 2017 and 2020 respectively. The sister courses are designed to equip the next generation of entrepreneurs with the skills and strategies to create companies, tools, and technologies to improve mental healthcare.

These are the first ever university courses on mental health innovation, covering the fundamentals of patient challenges and needs, the healthcare system, and human-centered product design.

The course is spearheaded by faculty from Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, the world's first academic laboratory dedicated to transforming mental health through innovation and entrepreneurship, and taught by four psychiatrists and experts of mental health technology and innovation: Dr. Nina Vasan, Dr. Gowri Aragam, Dr. Neha Chaudhary, and Dr. Steven Chan.

In the course, faculty highlight that different communities need different levels of care, the diversity of biological, psychological, and social issues that people can face, and how to meet people where they are by personalizing treatment and delivery needs. At the end of the course, students have a final assessment where they have to pitch their company idea and business plan to a "Shark Tank"-style panel of industry leaders and course instructors.

"In speaking with students as well as startup CEOs, engineers, investors, and other stakeholders who were a part of early-stage ventures, we saw that there was a lot of passion to improve mental health, but most people did not have the exposure to mental healthcare to understand the nuances of the patient experience or the healthcare system. As a result, they were building products that were not addressing the right problem in the right way, and ultimately were not leading to changes in patient outcomes," Vasan, founder and executive director of Stanford Brainstorm, said.

The teachings of this course have driven student-led companies with over millions of dollars in funding, such as women's mental health studio and digital platform Real by Ariela Safira, class of 2017. Real recently raised a $3.5 million funding round led by Forerunner Ventures and followed by the Female Founders Fund, BBG, SoGal, G9 Ventures, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

"As a clinician, Dr. Vasan validating me to start a mental healthcare company inspired me to think far bigger than an app or an Apple Watch feature," Safira told Business Insider. "I realized I could evolve mental healthcare by building in-person and virtual therapy clinics, hiring clinicians, and reinventing both training and therapy."

Stanford students from all academic disciplines as well as entrepreneurs, engineers, and venture capitalists from the Bay Area are welcome to take this quarter-long course. Non-Stanford affiliates have to apply for a permit to attendand pay the Permit to Attend tuition fee, currently listed at $5,291 for this class.

Studying mental health requires looking outside the bounds of the traditional healthcare system, Aragam, course director and Stanford Brainstorm's director of education, said.

"Unlike other fields of medicine where you can rely on lab values or purely objective data to define your targets, you can't see and feel mental health in the same way," Chaudhary, an instructor and Stanford Brainstorm's chief research officer, added. "Many mental health startups end up failing because of this lack of a clear understanding of the problem in mental health."

Chaudhary emphasized the importance of learning from other innovator's mistakes as they designed this part of the course.

"Many innovators start by targeting the wrong customer," Chaudhary said. "Here, the end user is not always the customer. We've seen interventions for kids that may not be used or bought by healthcare providers or even parents, but that may be bought by schools or even health plans who are invested in early intervention to keep later costs down and improve outcomes."

After extensive internal market research and experience consulting for mental health startups, the Brainstorm team saw that mental health products created by actual clinicians themselves may be backed by scientific rigor, but lack understanding of effective product design and delivery and have unsustainable business models. Meanwhile, business and tech innovators that create mental health products generally have compelling designs that attract and engage consumers, but lack scientific rigor and an understanding of the problems that need to be solved.

"We wanted to make sure our students knew the nuts, bolts, and nuances of what it means to be mentally and emotionally healthy straight from the perspective of psychiatrists before they started to build," Chaudhary said. "We walked them through what the mental health system looks like, who the stakeholders are, and what the illnesses and their solutions look like clinically. We then illustrated how this information could be applied beyond the healthcare system, especially using innovative tools."

Max Savage, class of 2017, took the course, which provided him a foundation for his mental health startup, Altas Mental Health, a wellness journaling app funded by Sequoia Capital Scouts, Kleiner Perkins, Reach Capital, UP2398, and a number of others. Since publicly launching the app this March, they've been able to support over 75 schools across the country for free through their Stand with Schools Initiative, as millions of teens are struggling to adjust to school closures and the uncertainty of COVID-19.

"At the time, mental health tech was like the Wild West, an open frontier that offered the chance to provide real social impact in a space of great need. To this day, it's still a tricky space," said Savage. He added, "PSYC 240 helped 21-year-old me see a lot of things that worked and a lot of things that didn't work, which helped us better position our company to play in a space that maximizes social impact and financial viability."

PSYC 240 brings in industry experts so that students can learn about the successes of other initiatives while designing their product. Guest lecturers have included Tom Insel, founder and president of Mindstrong Health, Set Shakur, president of the Tupac Shakur Foundation, Antigone Davis, global head of user safety at Facebook, and Dennis Boyle, health lead at IDEO.

Anika Sinha, a freshman at Stanford University, said that Dennis Boyle was her favorite guest speaker and introduced her to the concept of design thinking. Boyle led the class through a five-minute brainstorming sessions where, in groups, they wrote ideas on a sticky note to solve a particular mental health issue and then shared what they came up with as a team.

Anika Sinha's group proposed to change the algorithm of the "explore" page on Instagram to not be so tailored to an individual's searches or hashtags. If these images promote poor body image, they can create a negative feedback loop for a user who may suffer from or be at risk of developing an eating disorder.

So, her team suggested that there can be more body-positive posts promoted to counteract the harmful searches someone with an eating disorder might engage in. Her proposed product later entailed the The Healthy Student Body Initiative, a program that enhances students' access to scientifically-valid educational information on eating disorders and available resources and reduces the friction involved in accessing the appropriate level of care.

"Design thinking helped us design our project because it pushed us to think of the missing links in eating disorder apps," she said. "We wanted to create something geared toward college students, given the much higher rates of eating disorders within adolescents and athletes."

Faculty of the course believe that technology has the potential to disrupt the current healthcare system and more effectively tackle the modern mental health crisis.

"If you look at the current mental health system, much of it was built in pieces based on a variety of things like the year's legislation, local preferences, and available humanpower," said Chan, a course instructor of PSYC 240 and faculty affiliate of Stanford Brainstorm. "And a big criticism of the field of behavioral health is the difficulty in navigating this 'system.' Harnessing engineering talent and connected technologies would ease access and approachability issues for mental health."

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An inside look at Stanford's one-of-a-kind course on mental health innovation, where students mingle with industry experts and develop business plans...

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