I am a graduate student and currently working as a research assistant for Penn State under Dr. Shelton, in collaboration with Dr. Lisa Elliott, Dr. Richard Zhao, and Mr. Jacob Marsh. The research team was awarded the 2020 COVID Immediate Human Relief Fund by the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority in the summer of 2020. The project is an interdisciplinary effort to develop a mental health support application for Android mobile devices that will assist its users in a time of severely exacerbated mental health risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The target population concerns the Erie County community, including Penn State Behrend students. It is our hope that later versions of the application will also be available for iOS and include other regions and, thus, a bigger target population.

As an applied clinical psychology graduate student, I am responsible for creating the mental health content that is necessary to be included in the application. More specifically, I am working on the following: composition of comprehensive lists with mental health providers in Erie County and nationwide crisis hotlines; the collection of psychology- and motivation-related quotes; the collection of published articles and other online resources related to basic psychological functioning and mental health principles as well as other informative resources specific to COVID-19; lastly, developing and recording auditory mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and controlled breathing exercises. Part of my job is also to work closely with the faculty and students from the departments of Digital Media, Arts and Technology, and Computer Science who are a part of the research team.

An important component of this project is its potential to provide data for future research in two domains. First, direct feedback from users and data from the programming system itself can help us understand which parts of the application are used most frequently. This will allow us to draw conclusions about which specific components the users find more helpful which, in turn, will further allow for improvements in the programming and architecture of the application. Second, the application provides a daily mood and emotion “check-in” on a scale from 0 to 8, which is recorded in the user’s account, in a form similar to responses to a questionnaire. This information can be used to investigate mental health needs, interventions, and/or prevention techniques for our population not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but in general settings as well.

This project is a very good example of how technology can be integrated, modified, and used in the mental health field. One of the basic principles the VAR Lab strives for in the field of psychology is to make mental health services accessible, available, and affordable for every population. Assuming that nowadays many individuals have access to a mobile device with an internet connection, our developing application is the epitome of an accessible, available, and affordable service that aims to assist its users in dealing with mental health challenges. As an enthusiast of classic paradigms in psychology, it was at first challenging for me to be part of a research project which is trying to modernize and simplify mental health services. In a very profound way, even though only at the beginning of my work at the VAR Lab and on this project, I am respectfully expanding my horizons while acknowledging the possibilities that new technologies can bring to this field. Even more so in the midst of a global pandemic that challenges the core of human existence and calls for creativity and innovation.