Student Kelly Sekins Wins $5,000 Scholarship to Create App for Mental Health

Tuesday, June 06, 2017
Photo of Kelly Sekins in hallway of Fine Arts Building

Suicide rates have increased to the highest levels in 30 years, according to a 2016 study by the National Center for Health Statistics. Kelly Sekins, winner of the 2017 Hearth Home Inclusive Design Award, invented a smartphone app that will attempt to reverse this trend.

“There are a million reasons why our mental health changes, and I’m working to recognize what those are,” says the newly minted graduate in Visual Communication Design.

Sekins’ game app, “LevelHeaded,” allows users to track their daily activities and emotions, provide a safe space to share thoughts, prevent suicide and improve overall mental health. Hearth Homes founders Sue and David Siegel awarded the $5,000 scholarship to Sekins’ project for embodying their vision of a future tailored to the needs of a broader population.

“I want people to feel safe to talk about their feelings like they’re not being judged,” Sekins states. “Especially now in society, it’s becoming very difficult for people to just be themselves — they have to live in a cookie-cutter way, and that's unacceptable because we're all so unique.”

Professor Ricardo Gomes says he is impressed by the design principles Sekins used in developing the app.

“We believe that Kelly had demonstrated a personal and sincere commitment to the concept of inclusive design and a desire to continue contributing to this area of design practice in her future professional growth and achievements,” Gomes says.

Art, science, visual communications

Sekins’ lifelong interests in art and science shapes how she approaches designing her app.

“My dad is a graphic designer and my mom is a nurse, so I have art and science as my background in my family,” Sekins says.

In community college, she struggled with the choice of majoring in biology or art, deciding that a career in science might be the safer route.

When Sekins transferred to SF State, however, the Visual Communication Design program piqued her curiosity. The program is under the School of Design, but it results in a Bachelor of Science degree, which Sekins deemed the best fit for both sides of her brain.

Students in the program attempt to solve communication challenges through design involving posters, infographics, products and media. Sekins has gravitated toward media and web design courses, which gave her the tools to build the foundation for her newest project.

LevelHeaded game app

Each interaction with LevelHeaded begins by asking how the user is feeling, on a scale from 1 to 5. The user can then log those moods and daily activities, set up reminders, write in the journal feature or chat with friends.

Sekins considers logging to be the most important feature. Tracking a log of these actions can help spot problematic patterns of depression or anxiety. Users can even show results to their doctors or therapists to create better solutions for self care.

“Everything you do on an everyday basis affects your mind,” Sekins says. “We don't know what we do in an entire day, and if we understood more on a quantitative level what we do, we might be able to solve our own problems.”

If an app user is expressing suicidal intentions in the chatroom to another user, a live “gatekeeper” overseeing the conversation for high-risk language will step in and use immediate resources to help them in the emergency.

The app also includes avatars and a point system rewarding interaction to unlock avatar expressions, stickers and other character features.

Research and challenges

Tackling issues of mental health and suicide entails research and acquiring feedback from other potential consumers. Avoidance is one of the major challenges Sekins faces when doing polls due to the stigma surrounding the taboo subjects.

“Every time I bring up the word suicide people do not want to talk to me,” she explains. She believes in the importance to open conversations and be transparent about the issues that affect millions of people worldwide, admitting that she also suffers from mental health issues.

Over months of research, Sekins has consulted gamers, app developers, consumers and psychologists to inform how she designs the interface and ensure credibility in her work.

SF State’s environment for growth

Sekins appreciates being in an accepting environment conducive to student success and with generous support from school faculty.

“The School of Design is growing and it allows the students to grow with it,” she says. “There's such a diverse group of people from so many different backgrounds, classes and ethnicities, that it makes for a really interesting and dynamic learning experience.”

She names faculty members Gomes, Jean-Benoit Levy, Pino Trogu, Heidi Dunkelgod and David Cox as mentors who encouraged her to work on the app and gave a last-minute push to apply for the Hearth Homes scholarship.

Future plans

Sekins plans to explore distribution platforms and pitch it to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as a preventative solution to the site’s rising number of attempted suicide posts. The app will be released once she finds enough investors and staff to complete it, but until then she is focusing on programming.

“[This project] is my baby,” Sekins says, referring to her everyday efforts dedicated to research, feedback and improvement.

Social media has shown correlation with self-image and worth, resulting in depression and anxiety for many including marginalized minorities like the LGBT community, whom she originally intended the app for.

With LevelHeaded, Sekins takes the initiative to change the relationships all people have with their phones, proposing that “we need to use technology to help people feel better” by allowing them to express themselves in a secure environment without judgment.

— Gospel Cruz