June 13, 2016

By Luna Greenstein

During one of NAMI San Diego Tech Café’s inclusive classes, a group of hearing-impaired individuals learned how to connect with people online through Skype. As the students looked at their screens, they could see the person they were trying to communicate with and sign with them. “It was like a new world had opened up to them. They can connect with people anywhere in the world and be able to sign,” says Renee Cookson, the Tech Café’s Program Manager and Director of Community Development. For the first time, these individuals could more easily communicate with family, friends and mental health professionals online.

Growing such important technology skills is exactly what the Tech Café focuses on. Beginning in October 2014, this comprehensive program increases mental health literacy and symptom management through technology. The skills gained from the Tech Café’s Technology Toolbox teach people how to use technology to schedule medical appointments, find health and wellness resources, gain employment, address transportation issues, access online education and connect with family and friends.

During the beginning stages of the Tech Cafe, the need for classes of this nature was so high that the funding and support of the program were not enough for the number of people who wanted to participate. Cookson notes, “There is such an interest in the classes. At first people were skeptical, but then when they saw how beneficial the program can be, we didn’t have enough time to get everyone in the classes.”

To help grow the program, NAMI San Diego applied for the 2015 Connect4MentalHealth Innovation Award for the category of Creative Use of Technology. They won the $10,000 grant, which allowed them to expand the program. “The creativeness that comes out of this team is very fluent. It’s easy to get excited about it.”

An instructor and a person who has lived experience with a mental health condition or a family member monitor the classes. So far, about 800 people have graduated from the classes offered all across the San Diego County community. The retention rate for the six-week classes has been over 90%.

One priority for the Tech Café was to be inclusive, so classes are taught in English, Spanish, Arabic, and American Sign Language, among others. The students get to learn at their own pace and in their own language.

The Tech Café also developed an app to navigate emergency situations for a family member going through crises. The app is on three platforms and is available in both English and Spanish. Cookson feels that being involved in the app development was a rewarding aspect of working on this program. “It’s really going to make a difference for family members.”

The Tech Café is an inspiration for the amazing things that a community can accomplish to improve the lives of people affected by mental illness. “There have been so many success stories and stories of hope. I can’t tell you how many participants have come up to us to thank us for changing their life. Touch one person, and it really makes a difference.”

For anyone interested in applying for this year’s Connect4MentalHealth Innovation Awards, the deadline is July 22. Awards are available in four categories: early intervention, creative use of technology, continuity of care and service integration. Award submissions will be judged based on the program’s impact on the community, sustainability and effectiveness in building community partnerships. Find more information here.

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