The University of Michigan Depression Center closed out its two-day Depression on College Campuses Conference with a keynote address from Dr. Robert Morris titled “Crowdsourcing Mental Health.” Thursday. Attendees were primarily University professors and alumni, as well as parents of children with depression.
Dr. John Greden, executive director of the University's Comprehensive Depression Center, started the conference 14 years ago in response to increasing calls for action to address the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety on college campuses. He sought to involve other professors both at the University and at other colleges across the United States, eventually bringing on Todd Sevig and Daniel Eisenberg, co-founders of the conference, to help organize the event, ultimately expanding to include 450 registered in attendance this year. Sevig is currently the director of the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Greden said though he has been involved in the conference each year, the organizational efforts of other University members have allowed the program to expand and improve.
“The credit for organizing a lot of this just belongs to a team of students, counselors, RAs, a number of administrators — I mean everybody gets together and says, ‘who should we invite this year that’s really special?’” he said.
Morris, the committee’s choice, is the founder of the social platform Koko, an iPhone-based app that strives to connect users looking for alternative methods to cope with depression and anxiety.
Morris explained that he came up with the idea for Koko while struggling with depression on his own as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He encountered a website called Stack Overflow, which allows users to post questions while learning how to program and write code, and other users will help them solve their problem.
“Just as we can use this system to identify and fix bugs in our code, perhaps we can do something similar to help us identify and fix bugs in our thinking,” Morris said.
The app uses an interface similar to that of Twitter or Facebook, allowing users to post about day-to-day situations and ask for advice, which is given in the form of “reframes” by anonymous users. The “reframes” are a system of commenting and refining discussion to approach an issue from a different perspective. This follows a method of cognitive behavioral therapy in which seemingly overwhelming issues are recast in a different, hopefully more positive light, with the intent to help the user find a new way to think about the problem or situation.
Morris used a personal anecdote to illustrate the experience of using the app, in which he posted about a stressful situation that he encountered in his life.
“My wife really wants a baby, but I’m not sure,” he wrote. “There is a chance my child will struggle with depression and chronic pain, as I have.”
He followed this post with what he described as a negative thought, an explanation of the view that pervaded his way of thinking about the situation:
“I worry I won’t be able to care for (the child), as I sometimes struggle to care for myself,” the post read.
Morris then showed the audience multiple examples of “reframes” that he got from other users, similar to comments on Facebook or replies on Twitter. Other anonymous users of the app provided him with ways of rethinking the situation based on how they had perceived it objectively, allowing him to see positives about himself and the situation that he possibly hadn’t seen before.
In a Q and A after the speech, University alum Dr. Neal Elkin asked about the demographics that the app is actually able to reach, and the challenge of getting data from a website where anonymity is so integral.
“Have you tracked topics that people are discussing — whether it’s bipolar disorder, depression, suicidality?” he asked.
In response, Morris noted that queries are organized by the topics to which they pertain, such as marriage, parenthood, or college, not specific mental disorders, also stressing that the app is not a substitute for getting professional help.
Greden said he thought forums such as the Morris’s keynote and the conference are another way to change the way students and faculty alike think about mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
“I’m really pleased to say, I think with accuracy, that the University of Michigan has been a leader in changing that trend,” Greden said. “This is the largest conference of its kind … it has gone on for 14 years. The first year we started it, we only planned it for one year, and people wouldn’t let us quit.”