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NYC First Lady: Technology Could Connect Children to Mental Health Resources

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Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has challenged tech developers to develop an online platform or app to help the city's children better connect to needed mental health resources and emotional supports. She issued her challenge in a YouTube video in advance of tonight's launch of BigApps NYC 2014, "a 4-month competition that empowers the sharpest minds in tech, design, and business to solve NYC's toughest civic challenges."

The Big Apple's first family is no stranger to such issues. The mayor's 19-year-old daughter, Chiara de Blasio, said last year that she had sought treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. In an essay published this week, she described her struggle:

"Because, as you see, for my entire adolescence, I was miserable. Sure, there were happy moments, hours, days, weeks, or even months! But over the years, little to nothing changed. The way I saw it, the only change was that things were getting worse."

McCray said that fewer than one out of five New York City children who need emotional counseling can get it. She called on teams participating in the BigApps challenge to design products—which could include connected devices, data tools, games, mobile and web apps, and other technology products—that will help children struggling with emotional challenges by supporting early intervention, taking the stigma out of seeking help, and connecting students, families, educators, and their communities with mental health tools and resources. The winning solution will be promoted by the New York City Department of Education, and the winning developers will be invited to a lunch at Gracie Mansion with the first lady, McCray said.

McCray's challenge is one of 30 issued by city leaders as part of the BigApps competition. Other challenges relate to economic mobility, education, health, the environment, and other areas. De Blasio challenged teams to design tech solutions to promote pedestrian safety.

Winning teams will receive cash prizes totaling more than $100,000, as well as in-kind prizes. Teams have access to public and private data sets to assist in their designs and opportunities to consult with mentors from civic and technology fields.

According to this press release, the competition has engaged 400,000 New Yorkers to create more than 300 apps since it was created in 2009. Here's a description of last year's overall winner:

"Last year's grand prize winner, HealthyOut, is an iPhone app that allows New Yorkers to quickly locate healthy meals at restaurants nearby. With a few simple clicks, users can search for dishes by nutrition or mood preference. HealthyOut has raised $1.2 million in seed funding and will soon be in 500 cities across the United States."

What do we know about children's mental health issues that might lend itself to tech design? Well, children's fear of sharing their struggles can be big barriers to asking for and receiving help. Children may also be concerned about a family's ability to pay for treatment, or they may be completely unaware that such resources exist. We also know that many kids are able to completely lose themselves in an alternative universe that exists in phones and computers for hours. It seems like there is real potential there.

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