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EP19 The Emp(a)t(h)y App with Natasha Puri
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey guys and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I am your host, Deborah Onakomaiya. On the show today, we have Natasha Puri, who is an alum of GPH. She graduated from the undergrad program at GPH in May of 2017 currently she works in Toronto, Canada as a Studio Y fellow at Mars Discovery. Mars Discovery is the largest innovation hub in North America and one of the largest in the world. In this episode, Natasha talks about her time at GPH, where her and a group of students created an app called Emp(a)t(h)y. This app connects students facing mental health adversity, hardship, including homelessness and related issues, to each other. A fun fact about Natasha is that she has a black belt in karate. Let's go to our conversation with her. Thank you so much for being here.
Natasha Puri: Thank you for having me.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So let's dive right in. So you're a recent alum of the GPH undergraduate program. What is it like being out of school? Do you miss all the papers, the group work, that type of stuff?
Natasha Puri: I think the College of Global Public Health at NYU was truly special and unique in the sense that we were studying real world complex challenges, and this was embedded in our curriculum. So having graduated, my academic experience has actually really paralleled well with my work experience and sort of entering the workforce, and so I don't miss the papers so much. I really love sort of seeing how my academic experience has only expanded in the workforce, and how my hands on experience is now a result of that prior knowledge, which was definitely critical to being successful now. Well, one thing I definitely do miss is the network of professors and having those interactions with professors who are doing work, just not only in New York, but all around the world.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's, I think, very important. Right now, we're talking to you all the way in Toronto, Canada. So what are you doing there in terms of health, and how is that relevant to your background in public health?
Natasha Puri: Right. So I think through studying global public health, I came about all these different challenges that we're facing in this world, with respect to health, and solely understood that a solution to these challenges is through innovation and technology, and innovation is really where we can sort of tap into these problems that the world is facing. So I'm currently working at Mars Discovery District. It's an innovation hub in Toronto, it's one of the largest innovation hubs in the world, and it's currently the largest in North America. Currently I'm working in the Excite program here, and we basically assist technology companies with their innovations to speed up the process of adoption for disruptive medical technologies. So we work on developing evidence for these technologies, but also implementation planning to ensure that these technologies get adopted into the healthcare system. This is really important, because most people attribute innovation with invention, but a big part of innovation is the adoption piece. It's great if technologies are being invented, but they're only great if they're actually impacting the lives of the people that need them the most, and that's where the adoption part is so important. This is really relevant because innovation is a necessary component of solving some of the major problems in public health. Whether it is health equity, social determinants of health, global health, climate change and environmental health, these innovations are really leading the way in addressing a lot of the major public health problems.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's very inspiring. Innovation versus invention. People wouldn't think about that, and like you said, yes, a lot of people mistake invention for innovation. While at NYU, you were deeply involved in entrepreneurship, and you even spoke at the UN for that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Natasha Puri: Definitely. So I took a class called public health entrepreneurship with professor Chris Dickey, and this is a fantastic class. It was a chance to actually put in all of the knowledge we were receiving within the curriculum to use and actually apply it. So we were in teams where we sort of had to solve a public health challenge or a problem, and actually develop the proposal to prototype the solution. So working with others, we developed an idea for an app called Emp(a)t(h)y, and the idea behind Emp(a)t(h)y was, "How can we connect students who are facing the same hardships, the same adversity, the same feelings with one another, and how can we do this anonymously? How can we foster peer support, and how can we really channel that person to person connection that is hard to find in a big city, especially in New York?" It came to our attention that students, as they come to college, they're living alone, they're away from their parents. Often, that is a time in their lives when they start to deal with mental health problems, and they often aren't given the resources they need to cope with it. A huge issue surrounding this is that they don't have someone to talk to, someone who can just speak to that experience. We have great health centers and we have great resources, but sometimes speaking to someone in a white coat isn't helpful, as they don't understand. So we thought, "How can we create an app that connects these students?" Part of our journey, we were able to pitch this idea at the UN and get feedback and sort of have an opportunity to say, "Hey, this is what we're doing on a global stage and a global platform," and that was amazing because I was able to meet other innovators who are doing amazing things around the world, and it was also a good way to sort of promote the work we're doing and see the feedback among other people and other youth.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow, that's really amazing. For our listeners, you describe it as a mental health app. How exactly did you guys propose that this app ... How does it work, one, and also, is this something that our listeners can download right now and start using?
Natasha Puri: The app is currently not available for download at the moment, because we're still in the development phase. However, how it works, essentially the app would be a school-based app where users would use our email address with their unique school ID to create an anonymous profile. Then they would be able to list an emergency contact, so that if they're using the app and they feel that maybe something is going wrong or they're not feeling safe or they're experiencing a panic attack or anxiety, they can use the app to contact their emergency contact. After that, they sort of create a profile where they list or they choose from a list of preset hashtags, which are feelings and experiences. So this could be things like unexpected pregnancy, "My parents are having a divorce," it could be school-related panic attacks or academic stress, and essentially the system will connect users to other users who have listed the same experiences or feelings. Users will then be matched. This is where the meat of the app is, essentially where the connection, the empathy occurs, because we're connecting people who have been through the same thing. Another key component to this app is we're connecting those who sort of been through the experience, so the givers, per se, with those who are currently going through the experience, and those are the receivers. The app will also allow users to sort of filter through their matches to say, "Okay, where are these people from? What are their ages?" All of those things. This will help users sort of filter through their matches as well, but again, all this information can be shared or doesn't have to be shared, essentially.
Deborah Onakomaiya: More specifically, you said they sign up with their school ID. Does that info go to the school?
Natasha Puri: Yeah, no, the info wouldn't go to the school. It's just a way of ensuring the safety and the credibility of the app, and we want to see if this is something that users can take their matches and relationships outside of the app, and explore other things in their community that can help with their mental health or help with their adversities or hardships that they're facing. This is a way for people to meet others within their network, but also being able to do that in an anonymous way.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Do you guys have resources ... Apart from connecting people, do you guys have mental health resources that users can tap into, besides just connecting with another person that might have gone through that experience?
Natasha Puri: Definitely, and one thing we ascertained through our interviews is that a lot of NYU students, when they go home, they don't have access to the same level of resources that they do when they're at school or here in New York City. So we want this app to be a place where people can also tap into resources on a campus level, state level, but also national level. So when they go back to their hometowns, we've sort of given them a list of resources that they can seek in their respective hometowns.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That sounds like a really awesome app, especially with what's going on, especially about discussions on mental health at all levels of government. I think this is a very pertinent app that should be on almost all university campuses, and having a way of connecting with other people, especially over social media, or I would say over an app, is, I think, extremely important, especially as millennials. We communicate better on that level.
Natasha Puri: Definitely, and I think it's important to recognize that even if we don't have a diagnosed mental illness, we can still experience things like anxiety or depression, and that doesn't necessarily mean that we have a mental health illness. Just like we experience happiness or excitement, we can also experience some of these negative emotions, and truly, when we experience hardships in our lives, it's okay to have these negative emotions, and we want these to be targeted in that preventative stage rather than become worse or escalate when they're not being addressed, and we think peer to peer connection and support can address that in that moment.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah, that's very important. Part of one of the things that caught my eye was that you were a blogger for HuffPost. Tell us a little bit about, first of all, how did you become a blogger for such an awesome post like that?
Natasha Puri: The opportunity came about, actually, when I went to the United Nations Youth Assembly. It was a conference happening at the headquarters in New York, and there was a speaker there talking about the importance of being an advocate and speaking out, and especially for youth to sort of take on this role. With the SDG goals, as well, well underway and sort of hitting that 2030 target, they were really stressing the importance of spreading the awareness among youth, and there happened to be someone there who shared this opportunity with me to be able to contribute for Huffington Post. Ever since, I've used this as a platform to spread awareness on issues that not only I feel strongly about or care deeply about, but what others as well. I think it's a great opportunity to share some of the work that people in my network are doing that I don't necessarily have the opportunity to publish or promote their work, per se. It's also tapping into some stories that are often unheard, and I think if we can give more people a voice and more people a platform to express their work that they're doing, their experiences, then that's truly, truly valuable.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's impressive. Looking back at your experience at NYU, what would you say was the most valuable class and/or experience that you got out of your time here at the college?
Natasha Puri: Having lived in New York City, and the fact that the college is situated in New York City, is probably one of its main assets, because New York is truly an incredible platform to experience, to excel, to truly see experiences in a way that you wouldn’t elsewhere. It's also a place to tap into a global network and understand, how can the work that you do impact or make an impact on a global scale? So not only being in New York City and also having the professors that tap into this global network, was so important for me to understand, "What is my responsibility on a larger scale, and how can I take the local work that I'm doing and have an impact on a global level?" The most valuable class I took at NYU was probably Health Policy class with Professor Wong, and in his class, he introduced the concept of structural violence to me, and structural violence describes the systematic ways that put our citizens and our societies at risk. It's basically something that's invisible, it's hard to see, and it's the structures in our society and the systems that cause injury to people. When a baby dies of malnutrition or from a preventable disease or a medical malpractice or some sort of error, who do we blame? Who do we hold accountable? Truly, these things that shouldn't be happening are a result of the way our systems are built. It was sort of this understanding into, okay, the complex challenges and issues that we're facing are results of things that are really embedded into the system. The events that we see that happen on a day to day level are a result of something much more deeper and something much more fundamental. In order to change or address these problems, we need to take the system's approach to addressing them. That, along with my experiences in New York, really shaped my vision of what I want to do within health, and sort of the next steps that I need to take in order to accomplish them.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So looking back at your time at NYU, can you mention one thing you wished you had known, you wish someone might have told you, or maybe just one thing that you wish you had done?
Natasha Puri: I definitely wish I took more advantage of the global schools at NYU and the global campuses. I think especially for public health, that exposure to different cultures, different parts of the world, different systems, would have been so valuable to the work I'm doing, but also in general. I think one can speak to these experiences, but seeing them at firsthand is something completely different, and so I wish I took more advantage of that.
Deborah Onakomaiya: It's very important, what you just highlighted. Finally, why do you do this? What drives you? Why public health? Why is this a passion for you?
Natasha Puri: I truly believe that society cannot move forward unless its people are in good health. I think health is so fundamental, I think it's so important. I think being in good health allows you to do what you want to do in life. It allows you to do what you love. I think the cycle of poverty can be addressed if we address health. I think health is where the intervention point is, because if people are healthy, they're able to work. If people are able to work, they're able to contribute and grow an economy, they're able to get an education, and if they're able to get an education, they're able to get the knowledge and the skills they need to essentially fix a lot of the problems or a lot of the gaps in the system that need to be addressed. So I truly believe that health is the intervention point or that leverage point that we need to be focusing on, and it's essentially where I want to focus my work.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. Thank you so much for this awesome interview, Natasha. It's awesome to have you speak about your experience. Thank you.
Natasha Puri: Thank you so much for having me.