Neolth is bringing together academic, industry, and clinical experts from across the country to talk about youth mental health. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, this series will feature these experts and open up the discussion of preventative mental health.
Katherine Grill, PhD
CEO & Co-founder, Neolth, Forbes 30 Under 30, Behavioral Neuroscientist
Dr. Katherine Grill is the CEO and co-founder of Neolth, a technology company that provides personalized mental health support to teens through a self-guided platform. Prior to founding Neolth, she worked at Children's National pediatric hospital conducting NIH research, co-founded a community health program for young adults, and taught psychology at American University and neuroscience at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Dr. Grill received a BS in Art Therapy, MA in Psychology, and a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience. She has expertise in school-based mental health and using digital interventions with adolescents and young adults (AYAs).
Neolth: Can you provide a brief intro about your background and expertise in mental health?
Dr. Grill: I am the CEO and co-founder of Neolth, a technology company that provides personalized mental health support to teens and young adults through a self-guided platform. Prior to founding Neolth, I worked at Children's National pediatric hospital conducting NIH behavioral research, co-founded a community health program for young adults, and was a university professor teaching courses in psychology and neuroscience at undergraduate and graduate levels. I received a BS in Art Therapy, MA in Psychology, and a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience. I have expertise in school-based mental health and using digital interventions with adolescents and young adults. At Neolth, my team developed and deployed a mobile application for mental health on college campuses and in K12 schools throughout the country. We’ve also deployed mobile solutions for adolescent behavioral health in national healthcare organizations and the corporate sector, such as leading providers of student services. I've worked with hundreds of students throughout my career and often provide mentorship to students during life transitions, such as graduation to early career. I've authored peer-reviewed papers and op-eds addressing quality of life, digital mental health, and integrative wellness and have spoken on these topics at over 50 professional events.
Neolth: In the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the pandemic’s effects on student anxiety and depression. What do you think will be the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on students?
Dr. Grill: I believe COVID will have long-lasting effects on youth mental health and overall wellbeing. I expect to see increased mental health problems in years to come, as youth deal with the consequences of COVID such as losing a loved one. Learning loss will be an issue, especially regarding social development and self-regulation of behavior. Students will need additional support on how to build healthy relationships, manage stressors, make decisions and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.
I also believe we’ll see changes in the way students approach education. More students have started to think about alternative paths to education, whether that be a gap year or opting for degrees outside of traditional 4-year programs. Of the students I mentored, I saw more choosing to take a gap year(s) between undergraduate and graduate programs to have additional time to consider their career paths and support systems. More students have been thinking about the financial aspect of higher education, and what the return on their investment will be given their chosen career path. I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of what these trends mean and how they will affect the education industry, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Neolth: How might preventative mental health initiatives play a role in mitigating these long-lasting effects?
Dr. Grill: Certainly, preventative mental health initiatives can play a role in mitigating the impact of learning loss and poor mental health. Regarding learning loss, students need support catching up on their social and emotional development. This includes learning about self-management of stress and emotions, cultivating healthy relationships, and awareness of and communication about their emotions. All of these skills are learned behaviors, meaning students aren’t born with the capacity to engage in them. Yet all students need to learn them, in order to thrive in school and beyond. Since preventative programs are provided to all students, they present the perfect opportunity to teach these social-emotional skills in a classroom setting.
Going beyond skill-building, preventative programs can address a wide range of mental wellness topics. This includes grief and loss, anxiety, depression, career development, financial wellness, and more. Students are dealing with all of these as a result of both the pandemic and their emerging adulthood, so they need resources that provide education and support on these topics. Preventative programs do just that, and importantly get the resources to students so they can address challenges before the point of crisis.
Neolth: Do you think preventative programs should be connected with clinical and crisis care services so that care escalation can happen when needed? What role, if any, would technology play?
Dr. Grill: Yes, absolutely. The behavioral healthcare system in the US has historically been fragmented. Digital innovation should address this problem, not exacerbate it. Part of the idea behind preventative and early-intervention programs is to identify those who are at-risk and get them care before a crisis arises. Programs that lack the ability to identify and refer those who are at-risk are falling short because those people are not getting the care they need. The best preventative programs have seamless care escalation and typically use technology to optimize the process.
For example, at Neolth we use our healthcare analytics portal to securely share progress reports, alerts, and aggregate data about teens with their healthcare professionals. Additionally, our Natural Language Processing system monitors teens 24/7 for signs of depression, suicidality, and self-harm and makes real-time referrals to crisis care. Through automating data analytics, alerts, and care escalation, Neolth enables clinicians to stay informed about patients’ health, catch at-risk youth immediately, and reduce the workload for overburdened counselors.
Neolth: How can schools be involved in supporting student mental health via preventative programs?
Dr. Grill: Schools are in a unique position to implement preventative mental health support for children and adolescents. Schools can provide programmatic support to ALL individuals instead of only those with identified or diagnosed conditions, as part of their core curriculum. At Neolth, we’ve seen K12 schools incorporate our tools into homeroom, health classes, PE classes, and even some classes at the undergraduate level. By encouraging all students to participate, schools can normalize talking about mental health with peers and trusted adults. This is key to stigma reduction, which as we know leads to increased utilization of mental health services (Adams et al., 2021, Toscos et al., 2019; Wyatt et al., 2021). Additionally, ALL students can learn resources for coping with daily stressors, to avoid reaching the point of burnout or overwhelm currently reported by the majority of young people (APA, 2022). These are skills they will need beyond school, both in their family life and career. By incorporating mental health support into schools, what we’re really doing is giving students the skills and resources they need to thrive at the earliest stages of their lives.
Neolth: What place do you see for digital mental health programs in the schools?
Dr. Grill: Teens and young adults can be private about many areas of their life, mental health included. We’ve seen an increased willingness for teens to utilize digital programs as a first step to getting comfortable with and learning about mental health. We’ve also seen the utilization of digital programs during nights and weekends, times when teens are struggling but are unlikely to be able to access more traditional services schools offer like guidance counseling. Overall, I see digital programs as increasing access and equity, while reducing stigma and encouraging help-seeking.
Neolth: Anything else you’d like to add?
Dr. Grill: Healthcare has long utilized a medical model of care. Under this model, patients wait until they are sick to seek help. To put it plainly, this means waiting until your child is feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or even suicidal to provide mental health support. Waiting until this point greatly increases the chance of a crisis. At Neolth, one of our goals is to shift the standard from a medical model of care to a preventative one. Such a model emphasizes early intervention through (mental) health education, stigma reduction, coping skills, and help-seeking. To truly combat the youth mental health crisis, preventative support must be provided to our teens as early as possible, in combination with clinical and crisis services.
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