Drexel debuts a kiosk for mental health

Anna Gibbons, a sophomore, demonstrates the mental-health kiosk at Drexel University's rec center. "Just the fact that it's there is already helping to reduce the stigma," she says.
Anna Gibbons, a sophomore, demonstrates the mental-health kiosk at Drexel University's rec center. "Just the fact that it's there is already helping to reduce the stigma," she says. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2015

On first glance, it could pass for an ATM. Or the machine at the Wawa for ordering sandwiches. But the sleek, wireless kiosk tucked in a corner of Drexel University's rec center has a much more weighty purpose.

"Get a CHECK-UP from the NECK UP?" a sign near it beckons.

On it, students who are feeling depressed or having other mental-health issues can take anonymous, two-minute screenings to see whether they may have a problem. And if their responses suggest a mental illness, the machine arms them with resources and places to go for help.

Kind of like a blood-pressure check for the brain.

It's the first such kiosk on a U.S. college campus and the second in Philadelphia, according to Alyson Ferguson, director of grant making for the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation in Philadelphia, which has funded the kiosks.

A ShopRite grocery in North Philadelphia received one last summer as a pilot. It was the first in the nation devoted solely to mental health, said Ferguson, who noted that some health facilities have kiosks with multiple uses, including psychological checkups.

Drexel touts its kiosk, installed more than a week ago, as another tool to increase student awareness of mental illness.

"Just the fact that it's there is already helping to reduce the stigma," said Anna Gibbons, 20, a sophomore public health major from Fort Worth, Texas.

The kiosk screens for six potential problems: depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol use, anxiety, eating disorder, and post-traumatic stress. A test for resiliency - a measure of mental toughness when challenged - is likely to be added by fall.

For depression, questions on the touch screen begin: "Over the past two weeks, how often have you: Been feeling low in energy, slowed down? Been blaming yourself for things? Had poor appetite? . . . Thought about or wanted to commit suicide?" On the suicide question, if the answer is yes, a pop-up message directs the user to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), dial 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

Students can take the same survey on a Drexel website if they prefer more privacy - information cards atop the machine tell them how.

Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Jed Foundation, a New York-based suicide-prevention group aimed at college students, called the kiosk project "an interesting and novel" approach at giving students access to information on mental health.

Some students may be embarrassed to take a screening test publicly, and it may be frustrating for the university to know that some students who seem to need help may not seek it.

"But they had no way to capture those people before, either," Schwartz said. "At least you have a chance this way in that you've given somebody a resource they can turn to."

Health department officials had no usage numbers for the supermarket kiosk, which contained an iPad. It had some problems.

"We have learned a lot about what is needed to keep it maintained and protected," said Dana Careless, clinical operations manager for health promotion in the city's Department of Behavioral Health, a partner on the project.

Based on that experience, the department, which also has a website where people can take screenings, and its partners say they have worked out kinks and are rolling out an improved model, two of which are at Drexel. (A second will go online at the health clinic later.)

Users can't use the kiosk for other purposes. The machines are wireless. And the screen is polarized, allowing only those standing in front to see it.

The partners - including Screening for Mental Health, a Boston-area nonprofit that made the kiosk - are considering other locations, including the jury waiting area at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the Free Library, and a homeless shelter. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania already is using an iPad version in its trauma unit.

"It's the way to reach people and integrate our community world with our mental-health world, because they are one and the same," said Careless, who noted her office has gotten inquiries about the kiosk from around the world.

Scattergood paid for the kiosks at Drexel and the supermarket but is looking for funders for the others, said Scattergood's Ferguson. Each kiosk costs about $5,000.

At Drexel, the kiosks are part of a larger effort to catch problems early. President John A. Fry two years ago appointed a task force on mental health after several student suicides at Drexel and neighboring University of Pennsylvania. Like other universities, Drexel has seen more of its students seek counseling at its center - about 9 percent a year.

Paul Furtaw, a licensed psychologist and Drexel's associate director of counseling services, said he hopes students will see the kiosk in Drexel's rec center and be curious enough to try it and, if necessary, get help.

"Having a physical presence is a way for us to pop out," Furtaw said.

Drexel hopes to add other kiosks, perhaps in residence halls, classroom buildings, even the library.

The more the better, says Gibbons, who has struggled with mental-health issues herself - anorexia in high school and, more recently, depression and anxiety. She had been reluctant to talk to others about it at times.

"Even though it's 2015 and mental health is such a big push nationwide, there's still a lot of stigma," she said. "There's not a lot of knowledge surrounding these illnesses."

Most students passing the kiosk one recent morning liked the idea.

"There are a lot of issues with mental health in the United States, not catching it, not talking about it," said Phillip Cervantes, 26, a graduate student from Toledo. "Having something like this . . . might actually be the push someone needs to get help."


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