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An Interview with Stephen Cognetta, founder of HackMentalHealth

Stephen Cognetta is a former Google Product Manager and founder of the world’s largest mental health hackathon. He’s been featured in The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Verge, and various other publications. 

The Politic: What sparked your interest in mental health?

Stephen Cognetta: Good question. At Princeton when I was an undergrad, I volunteered at a suicide hotline called CONTACT of Mercer County for Mercer County. I had gotten interested in doing that because – as I’m sure you guys know from going to an elite educational school – there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of mental health issues that exist on campus. I myself experienced a lot of stress, burnout, and those kinds of things. But more importantly, my peers had gone through a lot, and I had served kind of that counseling role for them throughout Princeton.

Then, my senior year I was interested in kind of taking that a little step further and seeing if I could do something in that space– some kind of action or volunteering. That’s why I did the suicide hotline there.

And then I worked at the suicide hotline in San Francisco. When I moved out to work at Google, I volunteered at San Francisco Suicide Prevention (SFSP). That was my biggest entry point into the mental health space. And going into SF SPE was really eye-opening and really exposed me to a lot of what people are going through in their lives outside of the bubble that I live in.

So you talked about how your friends on campus often needed your emotional support. Why do you think that you were a particularly well-suited person to do that?

Honestly, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I think that I have always really believed in active listening as one of the most powerful forces on Earth. Most people in this world probably just need to be listened to, or heard, or understood. What’s going on with their country today is very related to that, where people are getting frustrated, upset, feeling like no one is understanding them. I had always promoted and believed in the power of just sitting there and letting someone talk – saying “mhm,” “yeah,” repeating their words, and letting them speak – and the therapeutic benefits of that. So I think touting that and keeping that in my mind as I helped people was really helpful. Whereas, there are other people who kind of interject or try to help [those in need] too early. And really people don’t want help– they just want to be heard.

That’s a good lead up to HackMentalHealth. Could you give us a brief rundown?

HackMentalHealth believes that we can leverage the power of technology to improve the mental wellbeing of the world. Specifically, how can we combine these two fields of technology and mental health? They are normally very disparate–we don’t think of them together at all­–but very much need to be and currently are in many ways connected.

One important distinction is that I don’t view HackMentalHealth as a way that technology is going to fix mental health, but as a partnership between mental health folks and also the technologists, and the conversation between them. So that’s what HackMentalHealth is.

I got interested in that because I was living these two lives in San Francisco where I was volunteering at the Suicide Hotline, interested in mental health and exploring that space, and then working at Google as a Product Manager. I was really interested in how I could connect those two interests of mine.

When you’re hosting these hackathons, what’s your target audience and who’s your target hacker?

Sure. I think our target audience is twofold because it’s a bifurcated field. We’re targeting mental health professionals who are clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatry residents, therapists, life coaches, and wellness practitioners like yoga teachers. So bringing people from that side of the field into conversation with computer science students, technology professionals, software engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Really, we were trying to target both of those populations with the hackathon, and we got over 350 people to come out to the event from a really big variety. We had a woodworker come out. We had a crazy bunch of people come out, and they really worked well and were stoked about it.

If there was one thing you could change about the tech mindset, especially in Silicon Valley, what would it be?

This issue is so complex actually. One thing I think the tech culture does in terms of how we build products for the mental health space is that we “move fast and break things”– a very common mantra. And it’s not really the goal to break people’s mental health.  You don’t want to do that. It’s a big issue with where the intersection of the technology and mental health spaces is–that mental health experts care about how we’re doing things and tech experts care about how we’re doing things, testing things, and trying to move fast. So I think there’s a clash of culture there, and I think that’s something that the tech culture, if they really want to help people’s mental health, needs to acknowledge and maybe adjust how reckless they may be in creating technology.

I heard an interesting interview between Tristan Harris and Sam Harris. Tristan was a Design Ethicist at Google, and he talks about how people were incentivized to move quick and break things basically– not to preemptively care about ethics. What do you think is the role of those big corporations like Google in helping their employees’ mental health, or designing products that are good for mental health?

Yeah. So there are two ways I look at that. I keep saying two things… but basically how can we create technology products that improve people’s mental wellbeing? Like how can we create Wysa and chatbots that help improve people’s mental health? But on the other hand, how can we reflect on tech culture itself and acknowledge the ways in which technology is responsible for creating the problems we might be trying to solve: social isolation and social media? There’s been a lot of tech backlash in the past month. I’m sure you guys have noticed Facebook, but also buried in the news maybe is that Uber killed its first person with a self-driving car, and Twitter has put out an open call for health metrics, basically because they don’t know what matters for their platform… and [the problem of] fake news. There’s a whole swath of issues, that we’re really starting to look at in the technology industry.

One thing we’re starting is the Reverse Hackathon, where we bring together technologists. And we’re really inspired by what Tristan is saying, and a lot of these leaders in the field. How can we be more ethical without creating of technology? Because that’s a huge, important piece of it moving forward.

Do you want to explain the Reverse Hackathon?

The idea is that typically hackathons bring technologists together to “hack” some space like mental health or transportation… or could just be a general hackathon. But what if we instead brought together academics, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, ethicists, etcetera to “hack” tech products. So how can we take – in terms of the interdisciplinary conversation between all of these relevant people – to improve the ways in which technology is affecting our mental health and mental wellbeing.

And you know, the classic example is Facebook. Facebook did a study recently about how it causes social isolation, and it’s been a known fact that Facebook can be very unhealthy for people. So how can we target that problem? And how can we bring the best minds together to think through that problem and come up with something at the end of it? So the idea also is that there’ve been a lot of events with talks or keynotes, but this is a hands on kind of thing where we’re actually bringing people together to build – maybe not build something – but we’re aiming for a presentation by the end of it where you have a proposal for whatever it is you want to make. And the goal is that after the event we’ll send these out on our social media to the companies and be like “hey, this is what we came up with– what do you guys think?” Let’s get the conversation started, and let’s start having people work and think about this problem.

As far as the idea for a hackathon and how it originated as a solution for this problem, why did you pick a hackathon as opposed to other ways of engaging?

I think hackathons have a whole swath of problems sometimes and can be very unfriendly to people who are not from the tech space. That said, I think there’s clearly something valuable there. You can get people to actually get their hands dirty. I think that’s the point of this whole thing. How can we not just have talks or conferences, but how can we get people to actually start doing stuff? One of the goals of the hackathon that I’d love to do when we plan our next hackathon in 2019 is how can we do something where we actually encourage people after the hackathon to continue to build these products? So now we’re actually creating real value for people by getting these conversations started and that sort of thing.

If “hackers” are going to continue working at their main companies, like Google, what ways would you explore to make it sustainable for people to also work in the mental health space? To ensure that they can manage these two different obligations?

That’s a great question. I think one thing that can be helpful is just validating them. Before they commit to quitting their jobs and working on this full time… how can we help them to take steps after the event, have the conversations they need to have, and do some market research and get some initial designs up there and test their initial traction?

Granted, you know, people come to hackathons to have fun too. They come to explore and try out things. So I don’t see it as a failure that not all of these projects are going to become actual products, but for those that are interested–or maybe they’re feeling like they want something new in their life–this is a great opportunity. One thing that was really cool was that a lot of people came up after the event saying that they want to be in the mental health tech space. So maybe it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be creating their own entrepreneurial product (not everyone needs to necessarily have a startup) but they could be joining a company like Big Health or Lantern, or you know, one of the big mental health tech companies in the space in San Francisco or abroad.

What do you think is the role of Soylent, nootropics, and other things that people in the tech industry use to increase productivity? Do you think they present any mental health problems?

Totally. I used to be a Soylent die-hard. I think that Soylent itself isn’t the issue. I think it’s the culture around Soylent, which is: “I’m going to be too busy in my day to actually eat food.” What if you do that to other things like sleep or sex. “Let’s make sex two minutes because I need to be efficient about it.” The point of life isn’t to do things as quickly as possible, to live life on 3x speed, but it’s a cultural thing that I think causes problems, causes burnout, stress, isolation honestly, and things like that. So I think there’s totally a problem there. I don’t know if I can quite say that for all nootropics. Some of them might be good, I don’t really know. But the culture of productivity and efficiency can be very toxic I think. It’s part of what we need to change.

Like when’s the last time you haven’t looked at your phone for a day? I’m going on a 10-day meditation retreat soon, and that will be the longest time I’ve spent disengaged from technology since I was a baby. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s something at Yale too I bet. You guys see this probably– people here are gunners and just trying to go for it. It’s hard not to participate in that culture. It’s hard not to still want to do that and be inspired by your peers. And I think there’s a certain extent to which this is healthy, and a certain extent to which it’s not healthy at all.

Even at hackathon culture, it’s Soylent and Red Bull…

That was a big thing with our mental health hackathon. We were like, “no way are we doing Red Bull at our hackathon.” So we actually planned meditation sessions, yoga sessions, an art therapy workshop where people could express themselves, other therapies, zumba, and Hint Water is one of our sponsors.

We also had Soylent as one of our sponsors, and it was controversial. They still promote a healthy brand. In some ways, using Soylent is actually a useful thing. I eat with [my girlfriend] every night for dinner. She can’t eat the same amount of food. It’s great if I have Soylent to top off my food– to give me the full powers I need without having to cook more food and things like that. So again, I’m not anti-Soylent. I’m just against the culture of extreme productivity. I have to admit I used to be one of those people, so I’m not trying to be hypocritical. I think it’s hard for everyone to push through that.

You said you used to be part of the toxic productivity culture. What made you change your focus?

I think the quote that I would give you that encapsulates how I feel about it is that “you don’t dance to end up somewhere on the dance floor.” The point of life is not to get somewhere, and really kind of exploring that philosophy and thinking about the deeper questions. When people are running, running, running, they realize that the place they’re going to is not any better than the place they began. The point is that they’re running. So I think that was the kind of philosophical belief that I got from reading books, talking to people, and thinking critically about life. You know after you work for a couple of years, you have some to think about what’s the point of what I’m doing. The quarter-life crisis kind of comes upon you. That’s why I don’t think it matters to me to be so productive and eat Soylent everyday and have 2-minute sex.

But I do think that example is a good one. I can imagine some tech person being like, “I want to have sex more efficiently,” or sleep more efficiently. I think eating food is a great example. [points at take-out food] I don’t want to consume this in two seconds– I want to enjoy it! The point of food is not to get the food inside me. Soylent is a tough one though. I see why in some cases it’s useful. I’ll repeat it: I’m not anti-Soylent. I’m just anti-some ways people use it and what that represents.

You mentioned that you’re going on a meditation retreat. We checked out your Medium blog, and there’s a lot of cool stuff there. What’s one example of something you do for your mental health?

So I left Google and tried to explore a lot of really different things in life. One thing I did for a month was being a Lyft driver (the ride-sharing company). One interesting observation I got from that is how similar being a Lyft driver is to being a suicide hotline counselor, in that people like to complain in life and talk about their problems. And I want to get a tip– that’s kind of my surreptitious goal. I also want to make sure they’re having a good time. But it’s crazy how relevant the skill of active listening was from being a Lyft driver to being a Product Manager at Google to being a suicide hotline counselor. I would just tout that skill as one of the most incredible skills you can learn. I think that was something interesting that I learned, and I just posted about Lyft tips because I was doing some analysis about stuff like that.