The Yale undergraduate group Bulldog Hacks held its first mental health hackathon this weekend, attracting seven teams and 20 participants from across the University. At the event, teams worked to identify current problems in nationwide mental health treatment and then worked to develop potential solutions to the problems, many of which involved the use of technology to aid people with mental health conditions.
The event lasted from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon and was held at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, where each of the teams pitched their solutions to the other participants and to a panel of six judges, including Deputy Dean of the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science Vincent Wilczynski. The judges chose four prizewinners based on each team’s potential health impact, innovation, business model, product and presentation, according to Claudia See ’17, one of the event organizers.
The general Mental Health Prize was jointly awarded to two teams who proposed to develop applications for iOS which would connect individuals looking for mental health care with care providers by providing an online list of professionals tailored to each user’s characteristics, insurance coverage and needs.
Sreeja Kodali ’18, a participant on one of the winning teams, said that although she was happy to have won the competition, the highlight of her experience was seeing the extent to which technology could affect the lives of those with mental health conditions.
“Winning together was great, but the real prize was seeing how much technology can make a difference in mental health,” she said. “Our pitches were so similar that it only made sense for us to share the reward. We have seven people between the two teams who worked on this concept, so some of us may move forward because it addresses a very real and pressing issue and has the potential to make an impact.”
See, a member of Bulldog Hacks, said the idea for the hackathon came from a similar event held last year at the Yale School of Management, at which participants brainstormed methods of improving health care services in the United States.
She added that although this weekend’s event was originally conceived as an autism hackathon, the organizers decided to hold a general mental health hackathon instead because of how relevant mental health issues are to college students and the broader Yale community.
“I think that mental health is indeed a very relevant topic on college campuses in that whenever we think about it, we bring to it our own experience,” See said. “Mental health is a personal issue but there is also a lot of potential for technology and innovation to take place in this field in order to help people have better mental wellbeing.”
See emphasized that the hackathon represented a first step toward improving care options by providing an opportunity to identify problems.
“I think there’s a lot we can do to connect individuals to mental health care and treatment that they need, whether that be an app or a hardware solution,” she said. “But the first step to innovation is to recognize what are the problems out there and why do we feel that many people are unhappy or depressed today … In the end it’s about connecting people to others, that’s something I hope we see more of in innovation in the future.”
The event brought together members of the Yale community interested in issues of mental health and members interested in entrepreneurship and innovation, Wilczynski added. He added that hackathons promote a diversity of thought that is conducive to the creation of solutions to large problems.
Psychiatry professor and event judge Thomas Styron said the issue of mental health was a very relevant one for Yale students. He spoke positively of the hackathon for its emphasis on student-driven solutions to problems which affect them personally.
Ellen Su ’13, a co-founder of Wellinks — a company which uses technology to assist with day-to-day treatment techniques such as braces for scoliosis patients — who spoke at the event, said she was impressed not only by the quality of the teams’ ideas but with their considerations of more practical matters.
“It was encouraging to see that the students had thought about business, about how they were going to turn [their ideas] into a sustainable company,” Su said. “Because I think that at a lot of hackathons you come up with a cool idea but not about how you could implement it.”