Program combines technology with humanity to help ease pain and suffering

February 14, 2022
Woman therapist with young girl in office
Mixing traditional methods with technology – like SPARK, a kid-focused app that integrates games and videos to the otherwise formal process of evaluating mental health – can often help kids open up more during therapy. Photo courtesy iStock

Annalise Gunn was the second person to believe the girl.

For months, the teenager sitting across from the seasoned therapist had been repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. When she finally got up the nerve to tell her mom, she was laughed at, told she needed to stop making up stories for attention. 

How does something like that not break a human being?

It was a family friend who finally took the girl seriously. Together, they reported the man to the authorities, and the teenager moved in with the friend. Eventually, her path would lead her to the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center, where she would find herself sitting across from Gunn, the woman entrusted with the near impossible task of helping to put this girl back together. 

“I just remember she wasn’t responding much at the beginning,” Gunn recalled. “Maybe an occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but that was about it.” 

And why should she? After all, what had adults ever done for her but bring pain and humiliation? 

Ask any therapist who regularly works with kids who have experienced trauma, and they will tell you the same thing: Traditional methods rarely work. 

“Something I’ve discovered over the years is, oftentimes, getting too cerebral with a child can hinder any of sort of progress you might be able to make,” Gunn said. Approaching things differently, she explained, creating a more relaxed environment, that’s usually the way to go.

Screenshot of one of the questions kids are asked when using the SPARK toolkit 
SPARK features 12 chapters that can be used by providers during individual sessions with each child.

“If you think about how kids learn in school, they don’t just sit there and listen to the teacher talk all day,” she said. “They do activities, worksheets, go to learning centers. So when you’re working with traumatized youth, it makes sense that a similar approach might be the best way to go.”

Thanks to programs like SPARK (Supporting Providers and Reaching Kids) – an initiative that utilizes technology in the form of interactive touch-screen games, drawing tools, trivia, relaxation activities – therapists like Gunn now have more of those types of resources at their disposal. 

Created by the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, SPARK falls under the umbrella of the college’s Technology Applications Center for Healthful Lifestyles, or TACHL. The mission of the now-decade-old program is simple but powerful: leverage technology to improve population health. 

Back in 2011, the state immediately saw its value and adopted it as one of the S.C. SmartState Centers for Economic Excellence. Today, TACHL is a behemoth – a giant umbrella that services a range of needs, from families displaced due to a natural disaster to firefighters dealing with depression.

Program director Kenneth Ruggiero, Ph.D., said the program seeks to lend a hand to anyone willing to accept it: the couple who lost their house in a hurricane and are living out of their car. The man who fell out of his deer stand 30 feet above the ground and broke his back. The teenager who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend. These are the faces of TACHL. The people Ruggiero and his team want to keep helping.

Mugshot of Ken Ruggiero 
Dr. Kenneth Ruggiero

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 15 million adults in the US are battling post-traumatic stress disorder during a given year. 

“Many of those adults do not get the help they need due to access and quality of care barriers. With better reach through technology, we want to cut that number in half,” Ruggiero said.  

“Bottom line, our goal is to improve access and care through the use of technology,” he explained. “Whether it’s through an app on your smart phone or something as simple as text-based instruction, everything we do is designed to reach a high volume of individuals to give them tools to improve their health and connect them to best practice care. It starts right here in South Carolina, but our goal is to go beyond that.”

TACHL isn’t just cool apps and fancy websites. In addition to technological innovation, the program also mentors and lends its expertise to researchers. Say someone has a great idea but might not be the most tech savvy or know the first thing about how to write a grant to get funding for their idea: TACHL is there to help.

Two empty pairs of firefighter boots in front of fire truck 
According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. The Center for Firefighter Behavioral Health brings a variety of resources and education to struggling firefighters and their families. 

Program liaison Jessica Chandler, Ph.D., remembers the transplant surgeon who wanted to do post-transplant research, focusing on outcomes, but didn’t know the best way to go about capturing the data. Chandler and her team came up with a Bluetooth-enabled remote monitor for transplant patients who consented, which he could use to track how they were doing in real time.

“Not only that, we walked him through the entire grant application process – something he had no experience with,” Chandler said.

Currently, she’s working on a project that uses technology to monitor and improve blood pressure in patients with hypertension and diabetes. Yes, there will be an app, but the real heavy lifting comes from working closely with the clinician to figure out specifically what data he or she needs and in what format. 

Tonya Hazelton, the program manager for TACHL, works directly with end users – sometimes it’s the clinicians, but more often than not, it’s the regular, everyday people who are using the tools created by TACHL.

“Jessica. Ken. Me. We all come at a problem from different perspectives,” Hazelton said. “But what we all have in common is, at the end of the day, we’re all focused on reaching – and ultimately helping – the people who might not normally get access to these kinds of services.” 

Here is just a sampling of the areas in which TACHL is rooted:

Screenshot of samples of Bounce Back app 
Screenshots from the Bounce Back Now app.
  • Disaster mental health: Apps, like Bounce Back Now (available both in English and Spanish), address post-disaster PTSD, depression and sleep difficulties as well as connect people with the resources they might need during very difficult times. 

  • First responder well-being: The Center for Firefighter Behavioral Health offers a multitude of tools, apps and online resources that provide assistance to and advocacy for first responders addressing suicide prevention, mental health discrimination and alcohol misuse, among other areas of need.

  • Mental health care: SPARK, as well as S.C. Safe Seniors – a training program to teach health care providers how to identify elder abuse – are just two of the tools available to both providers and patients.

  • Emotional recovery after trauma: The MUSC Trauma Resilience and Recovery Program, a model of care that is gaining national attention, addresses the mental health needs of traumatic injury patients at the bedside, but also with text messaging, chatbot and telehealth-based follow-up long after they have left the hospital. 

Ruggiero believes that as more providers, institutions and states see what MUSC is doing with TACHL, they’re going to want to emulate it. But even more important to him and his team is how the program affects individuals – the people who utilize the tools TACHL has created to make their lives better.

“A lot of patients who need help don’t get it because of cost, stigma, transportation, you name it,” he said. “TACHL has made it easier for people to access the mental health care they need, often in their own homes.”

For Gunn, the child therapist, sometimes it’s approaching things differently that yields the most satisfying results. Thanks to TACHL and SPARK, the teenager she was working with ended up making tremendous progress.

“It took some time, but eventually she opened up to me. She started excelling in school again. She regained hope for her future,” Gunn said. “It was just so amazing. She even started to talk about what she wanted to be when she grew up – a doctor.”

As it turns out, with the right tools and the right people, sometimes you can begin to put a human being back together again.