Project Description

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Original Post: August 05, 2020

Serene is a free mental health support application for mobile devices that will assist users in a time of severely exacerbated mental health risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This Innovation Commons project is lead by a research team comprised of Drs. Lisa Elliott (Psychology and Digital Media, Arts and Technology), Christopher Shelton (Psychology and VAR Lab), and Richard Zhao (Computer Science), Mr. Jacob Marsh (Innovation Commons), and their respective students. The team was awarded a grant from the 2020 COVID Immediate Human Relief Fund by the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority in the summer of 2020 to fund the project. The application targets the Erie County community, including Penn State Behrend students. Later versions of the application will also be available for iOS and include other regions and, thus, a bigger target population.

In his capacity as Director of VAR Lab and as a faculty member of the Psychology Department, Dr. Shelton and his research assistant, Antigoni Kotsiou, were responsible for creating the mental health content that was necessary to be incorporated in the application. More specifically, the content includes comprehensive lists with mental health providers in Erie County and nationwide crisis hotlines; 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; recommendations for self-care, physical, mental, and recreational activities for the users; auditory mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and controlled breathing exercises; and psychology- and motivation-related quotes. The team worked in coordination with their colleagues in the other departments, so that the different components were developed in a timely manner.

It is our hope that VAR Lab will be able to obtain data from the application for future research. Direct feedback from users and data from the programming system itself will help better understand what features the users find most helpful and necessary in a mental health support application. One of the application’s features monitors the users’ daily mood and emotions. This information can be used to investigate mental health needs, interventions, and/or prevention techniques for the targeted population not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also in general settings as well.

This project represents an effort to integrate technology in the mental health field. One of the basic principles and purposes the VAR Lab strives for in the field of psychology is to make mental health services accessible, available, and affordable for every population, which can be accomplished with virtual/augmented reality and other technologies. Many individuals now have access to mobile devices with an internet connection, thus this application epitomizes the concept of an accessible, available, and affordable mental health resource.

In the midst of a global pandemic that challenges us in unique and unexpected ways, VAR Lab hopes to collaborate, create, and innovate a partial solution that attempts to identify and help mediate the difficulties that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic.