Karen Fortuna worked alongside people with lived experiences of psychiatric conditions to develop technologies to help improve their mental and physical health.
In this blog post she describes her experience and her advise to current and future academics and universities
Federal agencies in the United States spend millions of dollars each year developing programmes to help people address mental- and physical-health issues. However, only a few such initiatives are actually used in the real world. Their uptake might be limited because many scientists don’t include people with mental-health conditions as equal partners with shared decision-making authority during programme development and implementation. Co-producing interventions with community members who have first-hand experience of mental-health issues might help to stop programme manuals from collecting dust on bookshelves — and to get them put into practice.
During my postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, from 2015 to 2018, I partnered with people with mental-health conditions to develop a digital intervention called PeerTECH. PeerTECH was designed to teach people with such conditions how to address issues related to their mental and physical well-being. The programme includes modules that are designed to be reviewed on a tablet by a peer-support specialist and a person with a mental-health issue. The specialist is someone who has first-hand experience of a mental-health condition and has been trained and certified to provide paid support. A smartphone application was designed to complement the in-person sessions.
Community members provided input into every step of developing the technology in our project — from conception and programme development, to study design and implementation. I worked alongside them as part of our co-production team, and we applied scientific methodology to develop and study the PeerTECH intervention.
Our team conducted a pilot study and found that PeerTECH could feasibly be delivered to the public. We also found promising evidence that its use was associated with decreased psychiatric symptoms and increased development of self-management skills, hope, empowerment, quality of life and social support. We developed a framework for community engagement with vulnerable populations that can be used as a guide.
Thanks to the strength of this work, in 2018, I was invited to join the faculty of the Gesisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College as an assistant professor. So far, our co-production team has published six peer-reviewed articles, and we have been awarded funding from multiple organizations, including a 2019 early-career investigator award from the US National Institute of Mental Health and a 2017 early-career investigator award from the Brain and Behavior Foundation in New York City to conduct research in Boston and Worcester, both in Massachusetts.
Her advice to current and future academics and universities is structured in the following key ideas: