Technology is changing the way we think about and access mental health care. With donor support, up-and-coming Menninger researchers like Jessa Westheimer are advancing life-changing and lifesaving mental health technologies.
As an undergraduate, Jessa Westheimer toggled between art, science and technology, thanks to a unique interdisciplinary degree program at Carnegie Mellon University. One day might find her exploring the inner workings of the brain and nervous system. The next: creating clothes out of trash (“trashion”) for a fashion line. Whatever the challenge, Westheimer loved the process of solving it.
“I have always been drawn to interdisciplinary programs and studies and ways we can engage creative parts of ourselves with the more analytical and logical parts of ourselves,” said Westheimer. “There’s a lot of overlap that we don’t think about. But there’s so much you can learn from how different disciplines solve problems.”
Now working as The Menninger Clinic’s clinical innovation engineer, Westheimer has created a step-by-step process to ensure that hospitals stay true to their high-touch values when adopting high-tech mental health technologies. In practical terms, that means designing new apps or other digital tools with input from nurses, clinical staff and of course the patients who will ultimately use them.
At every step of the way we're incorporating feedback and involving the end user, so that they have a vested interest, but also a voice in how the technology is going to be used. Because the developer is not going to be using it. Staff and patients are going to be using it.
Jessa Westheimer
She explained that sometimes what looks good mapped out on a white board may not always make sense in the hospital.
“We want to know how would it be helpful to them? How would they want to use it? What would they like it to look like?”
In April, Westheimer was awarded a $13,000 grant from Menninger’s Presidential Research and Innovation Fund to pilot a process that will guide the development of a patient monitoring dashboard and alerting system. The ultimate goal is to ensure patients’ safety and help prevent inpatient suicide. Feedback from nurses, gathered throughout the study, will inform the final design of the monitoring system, Westheimer said.
The digital dashboard, located at nurse stations, will display real-time data collected from wearable devices worn by patients. At a glance, nurses will be able to see what’s happening with patients, for example, whether they are awake, asleep, lying down or walking around. They will also receive alerts for physiological red flags associated with increased suicide risk, such as decreased heart-rate variability, increased heart rate, insomnia and decreased physical activity.
This new technology is part of Menninger’s PsychVitals study, which is looking at the impact of nighttime patient safety checks, known as “Q-15” checks, on patients’ sleep while hospitalized and testing the potential of wearable technology as an alternative monitoring method. While well intentioned, and commonly used by psychiatric hospitals across the country, Q-15 checks may do more harm than good. Menninger researchers hypothesize that by disrupting patients’ sleep, Q-15 checks heighten suicide risk at discharge. This new theory, known as the safety-sleep-suicide spiral, was published by Menninger researchers in the Journal of Affective Disorders and the Journal of Psychiatric Research. Given the mounting evidence linking poor sleep to increased suicide risk, a new, less disruptive way to monitor patients is urgently needed.
Westheimer said she is excited to be part of the team working on a solution, and for the seed funding she received from the Presidential Research and Innovation Fund that allowed her to put her ideas into action. She recently submitted a paper describing the process she developed, called Technology Implementation for Mental-health End-users (TIME), to the Journal of Medical Internet Research and presented the research at Technology in Psychiatry Summit at Harvard in October 2022.