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May 31, 2019
by Tina Arnoldi

Hacking Mental Health: A Modern Approach

May 31, 2019 10:10 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Photo by Austin Distel on UnsplashHackathons traditionally are short term projects with a group of people collaborating on software projects.  HackMentalHealth has a different focus. Recently hosting the second annual 24-hour Bay Area mental health hackathon with over 500 attendees, their goal is to positively revolutionize mental health care alongside technology. But is a hackathon something we can do with mental health, a field that requires graduate education and licensing?

Organizers behind the event HackMentalHealth, Stephen Cognetta and Anne Wu believe it is possible to "hack" mental health and include mental health professionals as part of the hackathon. "We invited 30 mental health professionals as HackMentalHealth mentors to provide guidance and insights to the teams throughout the hackathon. These mentors helped bridge the gap between technical knowledge and mental health domain expertise," said Cognetta.

And Cognetta responds to cynics who may not believe a hackathon and mental health goes hand-in-hand.  "Mental health is an interdisciplinary challenge and requires communication and effort from individuals of many backgrounds. That’s why we plan our hackathons - events where all are welcome to collaborate, connect, and inspire each other to solve some of the world’s largest mental health issues. However, ideation and prototyping are just one phase of the solution process. We love the energy and excitement that a hackathon brings, and we use the momentum built from the weekend to plan follow-up community events, networking sessions, and online forums for people to continue collaborating across disciplines in other exciting ways."

Kristen Fescoe with Resility Health sees value in this approach, recognizing the change in our culture that results in people looking outside of traditional methods of treatment. "While treating mental illness is something that must stem from research and science, as people change, so to must the treatments we use as mental health professionals.” Fescoe notes that "as expectations for digital solutions rise, the mental health community will find itself unable to keep up with the needs of consumers if they do not offer technology-based remedies." 

Adina Mahalli, MSW simply points to the rise of mental health apps, indicating that we are moving in a new direction with mental health treatment. That trend alone “shows just how relevant technology is becoming in addressing mental health issues and allowing people who suffer from mental health issues to have input in connecting the gaps for app providers.”  

Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist is open to exploring new approaches. Commenting that "while not everything can be 'hacked' or treated quickly as some things will simply take time, taking small measures daily and with consistency may certainly help lessen the impact of some mental health conditions and experiences." A hackathon also invites laypeople to get involved in the conversation. Dr. Sherrie Campbell loves that HackMentalHealth incorporates "inclusivity, community, and pulling people out of isolation and working together on mind and body".

What many agree upon is that our mental health system is broken. There is a rise in mental health diagnoses as well as pharmaceutical use. New approaches, such as hackathons, that emphasize a collaborative approach may be what’s needed to address these issues.  Cognetta and Wu say, “We believe a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach is the only way we can make an impact in mental health. That's why all of our hackathons are heavily attended by clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, LCSWs, therapists, and others from the mental health care space.” If you want to explore this in your community, reach out to HackMentalHealth to start a new chapter.

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at

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