With Teen Suicides Up, Professor Aims to Develop App to Improve Mental Health

At a time when teen depression and suicide rates are soaring, Dr. John Pollock and his team are using storytelling—albeit through 21st century technology—to help pre-teens develop coping skills to manage stress and anxiety.

Dr. John Pollock
Dr. John Pollock

“We all have some level of stress and anxiety in our lives, and that’s true for kids in grades five through eight,” Pollock, professor of biological sciences and co-director of the Chronic Pain Research Consortium at Duquesne, said. “If we can teach kids at that age how to handle stress, then they will be better prepared as they enter their teen years.”

To tackle the problem, Pollock and his team are developing multimedia stories that address both the biology of the nervous system and healthy management techniques for dealing with pain, anxiety and stress for K-12 students. The new project is supported by a $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Teaching children how to handle stress at an early age allows them to develop healthy habits and personal skills to better manage life’s challenges, Pollock said. Providing these coping skills may help reduce the stigma around mental health and the need for professional care when dealing with an issue. The new digital media stories will explore the common day-to-day stress experienced by children. Through discovery and problem-solving, the app will let children learn research-based, non-pharmacological pain relief and coping strategies for dealing with anxiety and stress, including physical activities and mindfulness practices.

“As adults, we often reach for an over-the-counter aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for a common headache or body pain,” Pollock said. “This simple patterned behavior is observed by our children, setting the stage for them to seek a pill remedy when they don’t feel well. Instead of a pill, relaxing and changing our own stress level may be just as good at getting rid of that headache.”

Pollock, an active neuroscientist investigating the fundamental biology of pain, has created an Emmy® Award-winning television program and educational apps as the director of The Partnership for Education at Duquesne.

The stories will be produced for iOS/Android devices with a format similar to Pollock’s award-winning BiblioTech™ app series. Through a “choose-your-own adventure” style narrative and graphics, games, videos and other interactive features, these earlier stories explored topics in brain health and science, such as sleep and sports-related concussions.

The new stories will use Adaptive Reader™ technology, which Pollock developed and employed in BiblioTech apps. The feature lets readers customize the story by selecting a reading level that works best for them but without altering the story or learning goals.

The award is Pollock’s fourth SEPA since 2000 for developing health literacy multimedia and STEM educational tools, representing NIH grants totaling more than $6.4 million.