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University of Miami’s STEMSEL for Digital Mental Health Services

The university’s Media and Innovation Lab worked with digital mental health company Neolth on a platform that assesses students, then customizes curricula and suggests resources according to their mental health needs.

Much focus has been put on the mental health of students since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, with various ed-tech companies and nonprofits committing resources to address the issue. The crisis has elevated to such a level that the White House last month announced a slew of investments to tackle it. Observing a worrying trajectory of student mental health, the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Media and Innovation Lab (MIL) has responded with a pilot program to provide four Florida schools with digital mental health resources and social-emotional curriculum.

It was the aforementioned White House announcement, as well as a data report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that led MIL Director Dr. Azizi Seixas and his lab to partner with Neolth, a California-based digital mental health company that supports teens and young adults, and launch the Science Technology Education and Math Social and Emotional Learning, or STEMSEL, program. The MIL and Neolth conducted an assessment of 15 schools throughout Florida and homed in on four middle and high schools that were most in need of the program, according to Seixas, who was recently named an innovation champion in the education sector by Amazon Web Services.

“We wanted to have direct engagement with the community, the people that we serve, especially around digital health technology, and we felt that there was a significant need,” Seixas told Government Technology.

Seixas said that during COVID-19, there was a lot of misleading information from non-expert sources that led many people to distrust the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said that his lab studied this lack of trust and determined it was due to the general public having no prior relationship with the agencies while suddenly being challenged to trust and rely upon them due to the pandemic. Seixas and his colleagues responded to that lack of rapport by creating STEMSEL, which aims to increase access to quality digital mental health resources and prove the impact of digital mental health solutions on emotional well-being in under-resourced schools, while ensuring these technologies are inclusive of people of color, according to a pamphlet provided by the MIL.

The program, which will be offered at Palmetto Bay Academy, South Walton Academy, The Lakeland Institute for Learning and Florida Virtual School for the 2022-2023 academic year, is a web-based platform as well as an app that offers both education and services along the lines of precision mental health care, according to Seixas. He said for the pilot, his team assessed students at the involved schools, and the platform then built customized health curricula tailored to the specific social-emotional wellness needs indicated by the assessment. The platform will adapt and produce new suggested lessons, whether it be website-based or through the app, to help students navigate life stresses, he said. The platform also has a diary feature for kids to write down their feelings, which Seixas said is a more cathartic option for students than a standard survey.

“The technology then can use some natural language processing to be able to ... identify and to phenotype where these kids are in terms of their social care needs, as well as (their) social-emotional learning needs, to update the sequence of curricula that is provided in terms of the activities that they should do,” Seixas said.

MIL Supervisor Kayla Taylor reiterated that the application delivers self-guided and personalized mental health support, and Neolth reassesses the students every month in order to track their progress and for internal use to improve the application. There is also a function for teachers to track student progress, for which they will receive some professional development, she said. The MIL also provides training within its program through licensed mental health professionals, she said.

“We just want to make sure all bases are covered and that these teachers and staff and whoever else have the necessary resources to fully support their students,” Taylor told Government Technology.

Dr. Katherine Grill, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Neolth, said that STEMSEL has collaborated with hundreds of students and discovered that personalization, content diversity and on-demand access are keys to success in supporting kids through social-emotional learning and mental health. She said the platform helps adults discover the needs of their kids, which can often be difficult to unearth in regular conversation.

“If something concerning arises, Neolth can make a real-time referral to crisis or clinical care,” Grill told GovTech. “This feature acts as a safety net.”

Additionally, she said the platform provides a ready-made, customizable curriculum that’s been created by health and education professionals, giving teachers evidence-based content to help educate students about social-emotional learning and mental health. Grill said this builds a culture at the school that normalizes seeking help and talking about emotions.

Maggie Eubanks, owner and director of Palmetto Bay Academy, said they were interested in the pilot to leverage technology in teaching students about mindfulness.

“We hope to gain an improved sense of well-being and reduction in stress for our students, as well as being able to help them develop long-term skills for managing the challenges that come with all of our lives, from youth to adulthood,” Eubanks told GovTech in an email.

Seixas was a panelist at the AWS IMAGINE 2022 conference in Seattle earlier this month, where he explained the MIL and the STEMSEL program to attendees. He said the hope of the pilot, which was entirely funded through the university, is to be an example that can be used not only throughout Florida but the entire country.

“I think what we’re trying to develop is a national model that can be easily replicated,” he said. “And if people want us to kind of help them in the development and implementation of the program, then that’s totally fine as well.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.