Duquesne professor designs app to improve mental health

09/19/2019

Kellen Stepler | staff writer

In today’s world, there are apps for virtually everything.

And now, Duquesne professor John Pollock and his team aim to develop an app to improve mental health.

The app’s objective is to help pre-teens develop coping skills to manage stress and anxiety. A 2019 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claims that the teen suicide rate has reached its highest level in nearly two decades.

Pollock is a professor of biological sciences and co-director of the Chronic Pain Research Consortium at Duquesne. An active neuroscientist researching the biology of pain, Pollock has created an Emmy award-winning television program and educational apps as the director of The Partnership of Education at Duquesne.

Pollock and his team are using storytelling through 21st century technology that address both the biology of the nervous system and healthy management techniques for dealing with pain, anxiety and stress for school-age kids.

The new digital media stories will explore common day-to-day stress experienced by children. With discovery and problem-solving, the app will let children learn research-based, non-pharmacological pain relief and coping strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety.

Pollock notes that stress is something people of all ages experience.

“The world of a pre-teen has real-world stress and anxious situations, but the scale and scope is a different dimension compared to what adults carry as concerns,” Pollock said.

He also mentioned the lack of education in schools regarding coping skills to manage stress and anxiety.

“Rarely are any stress management and coping skills taught in school and if they are, it’s usually in a high school health class. High school stresses are very real and very real world,” Pollock said.

Pollock said that it is important to teach pre-teens to develop coping skills to manage stress and anxiety, because developing these skills at a younger age can help kids be prepared for different challenges later in life.

The stories will be produced for iOS/Android devices with a similar format to Pollock’s award-winning Biblio-Tech series. The earlier stories titled “CITYHACKS: In Search of Sleep” and “REBOUND: Beating Concussion,” involve characters facing a challenge and then go about finding the facts and resources to solve the problem. Through a build-your-own-adventure style format, the narratives involve graphics, games, videos and other interactive features to keep kids engaged.

One of the features in CITYHACKS and REBOUND is called Adaptive Reader, which lets the user decide the reading level.

“The Adaptive Reader is important because it empowers the kids and makes the story accessible to a broad age range and broad range of reading proficiency,” Pollock said.

This current project is still in the works, just the beginning of five-years of funding. Right now, Pollock’s team is gearing up to run surveys and focus groups with kids in late elementary and middle school, and then separately with parents and teachers. The survey to kids will focus on situations where they have experienced stressful situations, anxiety and pain.

“The survey results and the story lines that emerge from the kids as well as the parent’s perspective and the teachers insight will give us a starting point for developing a collection of narratives,” Pollock said.

The team also intends on asking experts in the field what they see as important, such as experts in mindfulness, critical evaluation, the health department, pediatricians and scientists.

“We’ll bring in their perspective and use that as guidance. We’ll also be adding in aspects of the underlying neurobiology and physiology of stress, anxiety and pain,” Pollock said.

When the research and surveys are completed, Pollock and his team will be ready to start developing narratives that will be relevant and interesting to the kids.
Pollock notes three outcomes for the project: that the kids read them and have fun with them, that the kids relate to some of the characters and learn more about the biology of their own body in response to the challenges of stress, anxiety and minor pain, and that the kids learn that there are a range of things that they can actually do to help them take control and manage how they feel.

The project is supported by a $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health. The award is Pollock’s fourth SEPA since 2000 for developing health literacy multimedia and STEM educational tools, representing NIH grants totaling more than $6.4 million.

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