Stanford Brainstorm Presents America’s First Mental Health Innovation Course

Editor’s Note: The following piece features guest writers Aayushi Jain and Anika Nayak, interns at the Stanford Brainstorm Laboratory, who spoke to Stanford University faculty about the nation’s first-ever university-level course on mental health innovation. We chose to include this spotlight in our publication because it presents a compelling example of a course that teaches innovation from a very cross-disciplinary lens, putting academics, scientists, clinicians, and technologists into a common dialogue. Whether it is for mental health innovation or otherwise, we believe that more classes of this nature should be offered for Harvard undergraduates, as they will foster the level of interdisciplinary dialogue and connection necessary to truly innovate in complicated industries. 

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Nina Vasan lectures students at the first class session.

What inspired you to start PSYC 240: Designing for the 2 Billion: Leading Innovation in Mental Health, America’s first university course on mental health innovation?

Dr. Vasan: The inspiration behind starting PSYC 240: Designing for the 2 Billion: Leading Innovation in Mental Health at Stanford stemmed from student interest in creating companies, products, and technologies to improve mental health. In speaking with students, startup CEOs, engineers, and other stakeholders who were part of early-stage ventures, I saw that they had a lot of passion to improve mental health, but many people did not have the exposure to understand the nuances of the patient experience or the clinical systems. As a result, they created products that were not addressing the right problem in the right way and ultimately were not leading to changes in patient outcomes (i.e., people weren’t getting better). 

I wanted to create a course that would build a pipeline for mental health innovation, to train students from all professional backgrounds — medicine, engineering, business, law, education, policy, etc. — so they could apply their unique talents to improving mental health. My 2017 class with Dr. Belinda Bandstra encompassed two parallel educational elements; first teaching an overview of mental health and the mental healthcare system, so that students could understand the context of the problems they were trying to solve, and second, the practical how-to for social innovation, through a book I co-authored, Do Good Well: Your Guide to Leadership, Action, and Social Innovation


The mental health innovation field is always changing. How did you develop the framework for the course to best help students understand the nuances of the field?

Dr.Vasan: This year, my team and I at Stanford Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation updated the course and built it around our 8-dimension interdisciplinary framework for building innovative products in mental health. The 8 dimensions reflect the key elements we have found to be necessary for a product to be successful, such as effective, accessible, scalable, and safe. Each week of the course is dedicated to one of these dimensions. We teach students about each dimension, how it relates to clinical medicine and how it needs to be implemented in the design of products, programs, and policies. We also bring in guest lecturers for each unit of the course to walk students through practical case studies. We assembled a dream list of guest lecturers and were thrilled they wanted to join the class – pioneers like Tom Insel (Former Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health and current “mental health czar” for the State of California) and Dennis Boyle (co-founder and Health Lead of IDEO). During the course, students form interdisciplinary teams of 3-4 and create a product or program to tackle one of the biggest challenges in mental health, such as designing better mental health interventions in schools, preventing suicide in veterans, or improving prevention and treatment of drug addiction. 


Describe a typical class session. 

Mr. Sole, TA: Students gather for 1-hour-long, faculty-led didactics, leveraging the Brainstorm framework for organization and focus. Students then learn from an industry expert speaker for the second hour. Speakers have included Set Shakur of the Tupac Shakur Foundation and Antigone Davis of Global Safety at Facebook. The last hour is a post-class reception, where students engage directly with industry experts and faculty.

Set Shakur, sister of the late Tupac Shakur, speaks about the initiatives of the Tupac Shakur Foundation in raising awareness and providing resources for mental wellness in communities.

Dr. Vasan: The “finale” of the course is an event that will occur in May, featuring Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse in the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. At the event, students will pitch their startups and engage in a discussion about the future of technology and innovation in mental healthcare with Secretary McCance-Katz. 


What were some unique challenges or barriers (related to mental health) that you encountered in the process of designing the course?

Dr. Chaudhary: Students in the class came from varied educational experiences related to mental health, from undergraduate classes to a wide array of graduate studies. What made it particularly challenging, however, was that they also came into the course with various levels of personal experience with mental health, either based on their own experience or that of their loved ones. Tailoring the content accordingly in such a short amount of time was a challenging task given this amount of variation. 

Dr. Aragam: In redesigning the course around the Brainstorm framework and a host of guest speakers, we had our own hypotheses as to how to fill in the gaps of knowledge around product development in mental health. We therefore had to be thoughtful about what content needed to be included to ensure that the students were equipped with the foundational knowledge required to complete their final projects, and pursue mental health innovation in the future. The field of “mental health” is broad, so picking and choosing which pieces of content were “need to know” and then going about presenting that content in a way that would be accessible to a diverse and interdisciplinary classroom was a challenge. 


There’s a lot of rewarding aspects of the class – we would love to hear about a few!

Dr. Vasan: Community! This course brings together not only students from diverse backgrounds (their degree programs range from business, law, and medicine to materials engineering, urban planning, and public policy) but also professional leaders who are impacting mental health in creative and innovative ways. Being able to build a community to bring all these people together around our shared values and passion has been deeply rewarding. Mental health has traditionally been a very siloed field where people have felt isolated, so creating a community is especially important for us to meet “our people” and solve problems together.

Dr. Chaudhary: The most rewarding part for me was feeling the passion and drive of the students in the course and hearing that the course had inspired them in some way. The energy in the classroom was infectious throughout the duration of the course. Knowing that we were empowering the next generation of innovators who would actually make a difference was especially rewarding and made all of the hard work feel worth it. 

Dr. Aragam: Having been in the mental health space professionally for the past many years, it had previously felt like mental health clinicians were constantly fighting stigma and assumptions around the field. Being in a classroom full of students who were not only passionate, but also open-minded, wanting to learn, improve and work together to do so was inspiring for what the future of mental healthcare could look like. It’s been rewarding to play our small role in creating that future, and helping educate these exceptional and capable students around a topic that means so much to us personally. 

Dr. Chan: Our students’ ideas and pitches truly came to life in our class. They incorporated so many innovations in their apps, platforms and services, in areas such as sports performance, eating disorders, loneliness, and underserved immigrant populations. The close collaboration amongst our education students, business students, and engineering students inspired our judges and speakers — including psychiatrists, venture capitalists, startup founders, and big tech representatives.

Students of the class during a design-thinking session to answer the question “How might we make social media safer from a mental health perspective?”

Why did you make product development a major goal of the class? 

Dr. Chaudhary: The final product of the class is a proposal for a mental health product or program, and to that end, product development is a large focus of our teaching. Students learned that many of the principles covered in the course were mission critical for the success of their projects. Without the projects, some of the importance or utility of the principles taught may have been lost.

Dr. Chan: Thoughtful, cohesive product development can lead to well-designed, scalable solutions. If you look at the current mental health system, much of it was built in pieces, based on a variety of things like the year’s legislation, local preferences, and available humanpower. And, a big criticism of the field of behavioral health is the difficulty in navigating this ‘system.’ Product development & design, a solid understanding of business needs, with the clinical expertise of psychiatry, would ease these difficulties and the general stigma of mental health.


How do you think students will immerse themselves in the field of mental health innovation after the class? What are some ways students want to get involved (after hearing speakers and working on projects and such)?

Dr. Vasan: I am so proud of the long-term impact this class has had on our students. In the first batch (from 2017), we tracked what the students were doing a year after completing the course, and 33% of students became founders or early employees at mental health startups that had acquired $20 million in funding. 24% of the students founded a program or startup in mental health, which is comparable to Startup Garage, the signature entrepreneurship class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, from which 20% of students found a company

For example, Ariela Safira, has immersed herself in mental health innovation since graduation. After the class, she worked for CityBlock, a spin-out of Google’s Sidewalk Labs that built tech-enabled mental health clinics in NYC, then starting a master’s in psychology at Columbia University, and now she is the CEO of Real, a first-of-its-kind mental health studio for young women to receive personalized individual and group therapy. I hope that this course paves a path for students like Ariela to tackle mental health from multiple perspectives, as we need their talent to change everything from clinical care to consumer tech to public policy.

If you could pitch this class to Deans of other universities, how would you persuade them to adopt this class to their campuses? 

Dr. Vasan: Students are hungry to better understand the issues they see their classmates and family members struggle with, and they have a deep desire to turn their idealism into action by building new solutions for the problems in mental health that are overtaking our country. This course draws on the biggest strengths of a university community by (1) bringing together an interdisciplinary group of students and giving them the opportunity to solve real problems, and (2) uniting academia with industry to form high-impact, long-lasting collaborations. 


What do you see for the future of mental health innovation? Do you envision more universities adopting classes around mental health innovation and product development? 

Dr. Aragam: The future of mental health innovation depends on interdisciplinary problem solving along with an effort to better understand the people and communities dealing with mental health issues, their needs, their constraints, their desires, so we can leverage the resources and diversity of expertise required to work together. 

Mr. Sole: Mental health innovation is about developing and pioneering solutions as diverse as the people afflicted by mental health illness. It’s about disrupting otherwise stagnant treatment modalities and bridging the gap between design thinking, technology, and mental health care. Universities that pride themselves in leading change will naturally take up mental health innovation- you can’t push boundaries of understanding if you aren’t forging said understanding.

Left to right on the top row: [Dr. Neha Chaudhary (SI), Dr. Gowri Aragam (SI), and Dr. Nina Vasan (PI)]

Class Instructors

Dr. Nina Vasan, MD, MBA is the Founder and Executive Director of Stanford Brainstorm. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Stanford Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and founded the American Psychiatric Association’s Psychiatry Innovation Lab. She was a clinical advisor for the mental health technology startup Lyra Health and an entrepreneur-in-residence for the venture capital firm Venrock. Dr. Vasan also authored the Amazon #1 best-selling book Do Good Well, which was praised by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus as “the primer for social innovation.”

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, MD is the Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Stanford Brainstorm. She is a double-boarded child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School with a visiting faculty appointment at the Stanford Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Chaudhary also worked as a medical journalist at ABC News’ Medical Unit. Her thought leadership has appeared in sources like Good Morning America, ABC News, and CNN; she is a freelance writer for The Washington Post, ABC News, Wired, and more. 

Dr. Gowri Aragam, MD is the Co-Founder, Chief Clinical Officer, and Director of Education of Stanford Brainstorm. She is a Visiting Instructor at the Stanford Department of Psychiatry and a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Aragam also launched Stanford SOM’s first Virtual Reality Innovation Lab for Behavior Change and led Brainstorm’s clinical-industry partnership with MIT.

Steven Chan, MD, MBA is a digital health researcher, clinical informaticist, and psychiatrist affiliated with Stanford Brainstorm. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. He is an attending physician with the Veterans Administration Palo Alto Health Care System and serves on the Committees on Innovation, Telepsychiatry, and Mental Health IT at the American Psychiatric Association


Teaching Assistant

Mr. Jon Sole, MSc is a Molecular Neuroscientist and current Stanford Psychiatry resident, who will be graduating from Stanford Medical School in June 2020.

If you are interested in collaborating with the mental health innovation community, connect with healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, journalists, and other students on the Mental Health Innovation Network and on Twitter @StanfordMHILab. For more information on Stanford Brainstorm Laboratory, visit their website at

Connect with the doctors on Twitter to follow their work: @NinaVasan, @NehaChaudharyMD, @GowriAragam

About The Author

Stanford Brainstorm Lab

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