4 S'pore students launch hackathon to encourage mental health innovation

(From left) Ms Bhawana Sapkota, 18, Mr Low Jia En, 23, Mr Timothy Liau, 21, and Ms Rachel Lee, 21.
(From left) Ms Bhawana Sapkota, 18, Mr Low Jia En, 23, Mr Timothy Liau, 21, and Ms Rachel Lee, 21.PHOTO: KLAUS TAN

SINGAPORE - The bullying first started when Mr Timothy Liau was eight and happened again when he was 14.

When he was a Pri 2 student, his seniors would snatch the snacks he brought to school and crush them, calling him names.

In secondary school, his classmates would throw his pencil case around the classroom and attempts to fight back against his bullies were futile.

The experiences caused Mr Liau to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Stigma against mental health issues kept him suffering alone, afraid to seek help.

Eventually, fuelled by a desire to break out of the vicious cycle of negative thoughts, he learnt to focus on things he found meaningful and invested his efforts in various mental health initiatives.

On Sept 4, Mr Liau, 21, a second-year computer engineering student in Singapore Polytechnic, and his team - Mr Low Jia En, 23, Ms Rachel Lee, 21, and Ms Bhawana Sapkota, 18 - will launch what they believe is Singapore's first student-run mental health-themed hackathon, MindfulHacks.

 Mr Low is a student at Kaplan Higher Education Institute doing a management and international business degree from University of London;  Ms Lee is a third-year computer science student at Nanyang Technological University; and Ms Sapkota is a second-year computer engineering student at Singapore Polytechnic.

They are all friends who met at different times in their lives.

The 24-hour virtual hackathon will be held over Zoom with the aim of encouraging innovative solutions to mental health issues and combating stigma against mental illnesses.

Participants will compete in teams to build a software project that addresses mental health issues.

Said Mr Liau: "The idea came to me in February, when I was a volunteer at (mental healthcare platform and app) Safe Space.

"Working there, I saw the wonders tech can do for mental health, so I thought about how I could bring together more young minds to work towards a better mental health support system."

They are all friends who met at different times in their lives. PHOTO: KLAUS TAN

As at Thursday (July 29), 185 participants have signed up. Registration closes on Aug 29 and participation is free.

Anyone studying in a local university, polytechnic, junior college or the Institute of Technical Education can sign up for the hackathon.

Those interested can visit this website or check out the Instagram page @MindfulHacksSG for more information.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Ms Lee recalled that the path to the school counsellor's office used to be referred to as a "walkway of shame" and students leaving the room would be subjected to whispers and stares from those walking past.

Said Ms Lee: "Through the hackathon, we hope to convey the message that a healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body.

"I also hope our hackathon will be able to give youth an opportunity to bring their ideas on mental health to fruition."

The four organisers have had to juggle multiple commitments such as schoolwork, co-curricular activities, internships and even a full-time job for one of them.

Mr Liau, who works on the hackathon between - and sometimes during - classes, said: "I don't see it as a chore. It's exciting when you have an idea, you want to make a change, and people - such as our sponsors - take a chance on you."

Added Ms Lee: "I want to bring together like-minded individuals on this journey to create a safe haven through technology."