Hacking Mental Health: Perspectives from a First-time Judge

Danielle Ramo, Hopelab’s Director of Research Operations, judged HackMentalHealth’s mental health hackathon

Last weekend, I was honored to judge the Hopelab prize for HackMentalHealth’s Mental Health Hackathon at UCSF. It was the perfect first Hackathon for me — we hack mental health every day at Hopelab. At the Hackathon, I got to see what teams could put together in 30 hours.

In a word, I was…..humbled. Here are some takeaways:

1. People care about loneliness.

Loneliness is a major problem — as an example, 60% of college students report feeling “very lonely” at some point in the past year in a national survey in 2017. Of the 60 teams competing in the Hackathon, a full 33 chose to take on our challenge to build a tool to support social connections among young people. That’s more than we ever could have hoped! The hacks were quite varied — from tools to work on oneself through becoming more aware of our emotions, to tools to enhance our existing relationships, to tools to form new relationships. The teams that won our prize took a unique take on the problem of social isolation.

2. Personal experience informs the best solutions.

Many teams at the Hackathon related their own personal experience in their designs. It was both humbling and powerful to hear how people were inspired by their own experiences with mental health and by those of people they love. One of the many upshots of the reduction in stigma from mental illness is that we are getting more creative solutions to address it. My colleague Steve Hinshaw is an amazing advocate of stigma reduction. His book Another Kind of Madness: A Journey through the Stigma and Hope of Mental Illness describes the many benefits of reducing the stigma of mental health problems. Among them is the involvement of patients themselves in solutions that work. At Hopelab we work with young people to co-design all of the solutions we make. That was happening at the Hackathon as well and appeared to contribute greatly to the solutions that worked.

3. The pitch matters.

A key challenge for any Hackathon team is the pitch. I had one hour to hear 33 pitches. That meant teams had 90 seconds to pitch and I had 30 seconds to ask and hear the answer to a single question. That’s fast! Teams could have the best solution on the planet but if they couldn’t share it well, their work was all for naught. With San Francisco being a hub for many startups, and many teams made up of folks who had clear experience in the tech industry or with entrepreneurship, teams generally understood how to make their case in 120 seconds, but it was still clearly a major challenge! If a team came with a very strong start to the pitch I had to try to see beyond the story or problem frame to evaluate the tool itself. If a team came off as not as strong in their pitch it was effortful to put that aside to judge the product they had built. I had to think back to my courses in psychology of memory, behavioral economics, thinking, and decision-making and identify where my biases in thinking (we all have them) may have been trying to playing a role in my judging. At the end of the day, if the pitch was strong, it was far easier for the tool to stand out.


And now, to share the winners and why we loved their ideas:

Winner: Relatable

This team took on loneliness and social anxiety during the first year of college when, even at school with a robust set of club options, it can be a competitive process to be chosen for a club. In this type of environment, more introverted or socially-anxious students can get left behind, not being chosen for the clubs that offer an opportunity to make new friends and share values. Relatable built a tool for 1st-year college students to be paired with upper class-students who offer to mentor for course credit. A feature of their app included mentor and mentee profiles, chatting, and a facilitator for in-person meetings. Near-peer mentorship can be a key driver of success from middle school, to high school, to college. This team of first-year students from UC Berkeley built a solution they would have wanted when they started school and they seemed really on to something.

Winner: Golden Pillar

This team had a unique take on skill-building to address mental health symptoms. They did not reach out to those experiencing the mental health symptoms themselves. Nor did they reach out to their families. Their app supported friends of people experiencing emotional difficulties. It taught these friends how to understand their friends’ experience with different types of mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, social anxiety). The skills both normalized the experience of having friends with mental health problems and acknowledged that there may be some unique features of friendships that include problems with mental health. For example, if your friend has depression, they may not want to go out as often as the rest of your friend group. The tool gave these friends strategies to talk to their friends and not to take things too personally if the result is not what they had hoped for. I liked the frame of working with friends as part of a multi-pronged approach to surrounding those with mental health problems with the support they need. When I speak to teen and parent audiences I often get asked: “How can I support a friend or family member with a substance use disorder or mental health problem.” It would be great to be able to say there is a digital solution to give skills to loved ones.

Honorable mention: A Hint of Fun(g)

This team was made up of Fellows from the Fung Program at Berkeley. They worked to simultaneously address the problems of loneliness among older and younger adults, by building a tool to bring the generations together through sharing a meal. As a food lover, and someone who has enjoyed many meals with older adults in my life, this one really resonated with me. Who doesn’t love good company and good food? It reminded me of a solution Berkeley is using to address loneliness and the Bay Area housing crisis through bringing together retired UC Berkeley staff with space in their homes and graduate students to rent that space. The emphasis on intergenerational connectedness seemed both positive and meaningful. I could imagine both younger and older adults enjoying the experience of eating together.


All in all, the Hackathon was an incredible way to spend a Sunday. As a parent of three young children, I don’t do it often and this was well worth it. As an added bonus it was the perfect “work” event to bring my son. He was in awe of how quickly people could build clickable prototypes and the focus on helping people with their feelings. So was I.

Hopelab is actively working on building a tool to improve social connections among young people. I will share the inspiration I gleaned from the Mental Health Hackathon with our team, and build that energy into our work to improve the lives of young people. In the meantime, if the Hackathon invites me back to judge again I will likely accept.


Originally published at hopelab.org.