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DiscoverU Harnesses Interdisciplinary Cooperation to Create Mental Health Solution for Youths

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Matt Meyer



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DiscoverU app screen

In its 2022 evaluations of the state of mental health in the U.S., Mental Health America ranks Colorado poorly for access to mental health services, a shortcoming amplified for those of lesser means.

DiscoverU seeks to change that. A project spearheaded by the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) and built out by students and faculty from the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science with market analysis from the Daniels College of Business, it targets teenagers and young adults with a telehealth application and virtual clinic that offers Colorado-themed “journeys” accessible from anywhere with cell phone service. For young people needing more, the app, scheduled to debut this fall, offers the option for in-person support. Long-term plans call for social support opportunities, building a broader audience and expanding into metro areas across the state.

Shelly Smith-Acuña, outgoing dean of GSPP, says the project highlights interdisciplinary work and cooperation among large groups of community members in multiple colleges at the University.

“The DiscoverU team has done an amazing job in bringing together expertise in computer science, professional psychology and business to build a very relevant, much-needed product,” she says. “This project combines the University’s goals of supporting interdisciplinary work and serving the public good. I have been really impressed with the creativity that has emerged through this teamwork.”

Development began with GSPP faculty and doctoral students formulating the journeys, or learning modules, which touch on everything from grief and loss to anxiety and anger management. Early on, the team opted to deliver these journeys via a cell phone app, which not only offers a lower barrier to entry than visiting a clinic, but also provides a more distraction-rich environment. DiscoverU must capture the young person with its content, while not feeding into addictive, gaming or completionist tendencies.

Professor, DiscoverU Field Placement instructor, and DU alumna Vicki Tomlin (PhD ’94), a longtime K-12 school psychologist, says the target audience of 12- to 21-year-olds makes the platform obvious.

“We know that adolescents are very familiar with their phones, and they use them a lot,” she says, “so why not provide mental health within a vehicle where adolescents are constantly engaged?”

DiscoverU feeds into GSPP’s broad outreach goals, says professor Laurie Ivey, the PsyD placement director for GSPP. The school’s Professional Psychology Clinic offers LGBTQIA-affirming and culturally sensitive services and treatment to a range of clients demonstrating financial need. The clinic not only accepts patients on Medicare and Medicaid, it also applies a sliding-scale system for uninsured patients. And now, thanks to DiscoverU, it can reach a notoriously hard-to-reach population.

“With adolescents—especially underserved adolescents—that was a gap in our service,” she says. “This helps address that.”

Engaging content and easy access are important but could be rendered useless without strong visuals. That’s why the GSPP team met with a group from the Ritchie School to make their conceptual journeys a reality.

GSPP postdoctoral fellow Kelly Lavin, the project coordinator on DiscoverU, says the marriage of content to app resulted from a thoughtful process that incorporated multiple disciplines and dozens of people, with the ultimate goal of engaging users without “hooking” them on the app.

“We recognize that there’s so much developmental growth that goes on in that timespan, and the content and journeys that the psych team are putting together are really relevant topics that this population might be going through. But it needs to be coupled with the computer sciences and the work of how you really engage folks with this information and how you keep them engaged long-term in a way that’s healthy. If there’s an exemplar of teamwork, it’s DiscoverU.”

At the Ritchie School, professors Dan Pittman and Kerstin Haring, along with graduate teaching assistant Lombe Chileshe, led a team of four software engineering students, with several classes contributing across the development cycle. The work mimicked a professional environment, with students participating in coding sprints and working with GSPP team members, much as they would with a professional client.

Pittman says the project’s funding allowed for sustained, interdisciplinary work that gave students marketable, resume-building experience.

“A lot of computer science can be theoretical,” Pittman says. “This not only provides experience, but it teaches them about meaningful, for-the-public-good applications of what they can use computer science for.”

With much of the coding and content in place, the development team hopes to launch a beta version of the app over the summer.

Izzy Johnson (BS ’22), who served as lead on the project’s user experience design team, echoes her former professor and says the work between departments was both challenging and fulfilling.

“Every week that we met, we got a little bit closer to speaking the same language,” Johnson says. “We really wanted to take all this important information and present it in a way that the psych team sees it and the way they conceive it, while also putting it into a workable app.”

DiscoverU Field Placement doctoral trainees Nathaniel Firestone and Mansi Lakhyani were instrumental in the application’s evidenced-based mental health content development.