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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Professor launches mental health app

Proxi, an application developed by Geisel School of Medicine psychiatry professor Bill Hudenko in collaboration with the Digital Arts, Innovation and Leadership lab, addresses the gap between consumer technology and individual mental health care by seeking to connect individuals, their natural support networks and clinicians in one unified network.

After winning a Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Founder’s Grant, the Proxi team went on to test its prototype with nearly 150 beta testers, Hudenko said. The platform integrates a suicide assessment tool made by WISER Systems, a consulting group for projects using tools to predict human behavior. Hudenko noted the assessment, called Systematic Electronic Risk Assessment for Suicide, or SERAS, has a 0.93 correlation with in-person psychiatric evaluations.

Hudenko said that he sought to synthesize his background in web design and computer science with discrepancies he saw in mental health treatment. There is a disconnect between actual medical treatment and the natural support network of friends and family that surrounds an individual most of the time, he said. While most hospitals are required to assess for suicide risk when patients come in, when those patients leave, they often lack an established support network.

The app is designed to help people find a support network and provide them with constant access to it, Hudenko said.

“Proxi was born out of this idea that we need to create a platform that really engages a person in their own world,” he said.

Hudenko hopes Proxi will augment the process of engaging with a natural network of people that one already knows and trusts.

Computer science professor and director of the DALI lab Lori Loeb said that she admired the project because it has a real-world impact, which she said is one of DALI’s goals. The DALI lab worked with Hudenko for almost a year to create a prototype of the application.

“It was a perfect project because we were able to get a working prototype out that helped [Hudenko] to get to the next level, and that’s something that we really care about,” she said.

The Proxi app has three components. Proxi Reach seeks to connect users with their immediate circle of friends and family, who can send quick and immediate messages and images. Once a clinician is connected to this circle, Proxi Connect is unlocked, allowing members and the clinician to communicate about the individual as well. Finally, Proxi Assess uses the technology from WISER to monitor users’ mental statuses.

While other forms of social media exist, concerns about privacy and interest in providing secure comfort for users led the Proxi team to create their own app rather than relying on another form of media.

Psychological and brain sciences professor Luke Chang said that he is optimistic about the increasing role technology can play in mental health care. However, he voiced concerns about potential privacy violations, as well as where responsibility would fall in cases in which a support network were to become aware of potential risks of harm but failed to act, either because of a bystander affect or from being underprepared for how to help.

Currently, the Proxi team is finishing up beta testing and expects the app to be released in beginning of February.

“We all care about someone, but most of us don’t know how to help,” Hudenko said. “Proxi allows us to connect with other people and provide that care.”