Using Apps to Deliver Mental Health Services to Homeless Young Adults

The Night Ministry is a Chicago-based non-profit providing housing, health care, and human connections to members of the Chicago community struggling with poverty or homelessness. In a survey they conducted among homeless individuals last year, the number one health concern was depression. However, there are a lack of resources available to address this issue. 

To better understand the needs of these individuals as well as the unique challenges of conducting research studies with this population, Stephen Schueller, PhD, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine and a member of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITs), has partnered with The Night Ministry to build a stakeholder advisory board made up of The Night Ministry staff members, homeless young adults (ages 18-24), and Northwestern University investigators. The creation of the advisory board is funded by an Alliance for Chicagoland Community (ARCC) Seed Grant.

“The seed grant is allowing us to think about how to develop an infrastructure to explore how technology mental health services can be used to reach this population,” said Dr. Schueller. “We’re looking at the needs of the population, the young adult’s interests and how we can work together.”

By developing a stakeholder advisory board, Dr. Schueller hopes to co-design technologies and services and collaborate with The Night Ministry staff on research studies rather than just coming to the group with a study for them to implement. To do this he has begun teaching The Night Ministry staff about research design and the process of conducting research so that they have a better understanding of research as they collaboratively built research projects that can effect change and make an impact. 

“It’s hard to get the space to do the important work of building relationships,” said Dr. Schueller. “If you don’t take the time to build relationships, projects won’t be as successful, and its programs won’t persist in the organization. We need to know what the real problems are. If we don’t we could solve problems that aren’t really there.”

In spending time at some of the homeless shelters, he has recognized that there is not always the infrastructure to conduct research using web and mobile apps, so some of the seed grant funding will be used to pay for wifi at The Night Ministry shelters. 

The board has also provided Dr. Schueller with valuable insights that he plans to use in future research. For instance, at one of The Night Ministry shelter’s, young adults arrive at 6 pm and leave the next morning at 9 am. Many come back each night, but some do not. This has raised questions for Dr. Schueller about future research designs as traditional logistics of recruitment and screening would not fit in this model. However, he acknowledges that by being responsive to the needs of the individuals and the setting when conducting research will make it easier to translate it into practice in the future. 

For Dr. Schueller, talking with the young adults about their concerns and their needs has helped to solidify the importance of making mental health resource readily available to these individuals. 

“Sometimes we’re asked why we would provide mental health services if they don’t have their basic needs met, isn’t that low on the priority list?” said Dr. Schueller. “When we brought this question to the young adults they said that mental health is important. They said ‘We have these other problems, but our mental health gets in the way of these things.’”  

In the six months that Dr. Schueller and The Night Ministry have been working together, they have already submitted a grant application and are continuing to develop new ways to collaborate. 

The ARCC Seed Grant Program is now accepting applications for projects that support community-engaged research partnerships between Chicagoland communities and Northwestern academic teams. Apply by March 30.

Contact CCH to learn more about how a stakeholder advisory board may serve your research. To access resources related to advisory boards, click here.

Posted: March 1, 2017

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