University of South Florida College of Public Health doctoral student Ms. Natasha Kurji placed as a finalist in the Florida Blue Health Innovation Pitch competition earning a $1,000 award.
The sixth annual competition, held October in Orlando, FL at the GuideWell Innovation Center in Lake Nona Medical City, asked competitors to pitch solutions to support the treatment of anxiety and depression, a rapidly growing health issue affecting all age groups, ethnicities and genders.
Competitors were told to focus on certain clinical areas, such as peer-pressure, work stress, or managing chronic illness, and come up with possible interventions.
“Mental health is important to public health because it is essential for a good quality of life,” Ms. Kurji said. “If the goal of public health is to promote health, prevent disease, and prolong life, then our mental health needs to be just as important as our physical health.”
This year, 17 universities from across Florida were represented and seven of the 26 undergraduate and graduate student finalists chosen to compete were from USF.
[Photo: Ms. Natasha Kurji, MPH. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Kurji)]
Ms. Kurji pitched her intervention to a panel of health care experts and executives — her focus being on adolescent children.
“Fourteen is the average age of onset for most mental illnesses. For anxiety it is even earlier, at age 11,” she said. “With the school shootings and current social and political climate, I believe students need guidance more than ever.”
Ms. Kurji said that although teenagers spend more than 1,000 hours in school each year, none of those hours are dedicated to teaching mental health.
“Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst teenagers. So, we aren’t doing something right: the medications, the therapy, the health care system we have, we are failing thousands of people,” she said. “It is imperative that we have these difficult conversations early on and create a space of compassion towards those struggling.”
She pitched the idea of an educational program called Ending the Silence, something she describes as a mental health literacy program.
“Its objective is to educate students about coping strategies, warning signs and resources available to them in their schools and communities,” she said. “Most importantly, we want to promote early identification of mental health issues and reduce stigma. By reaching students through primary and secondary prevention, research shows we can reduce long term costs and over utilization of high cost health care services.”
Ms. Kurji, who is a graduate teaching and research assistant, also received a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in health care organization and management from USF. She serves as vice president of the Hillsborough National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter.
Her research interest centers on access and quality of mental health care.
“As the vice president for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Hillsborough County, I found myself especially passionate about Ending the Silence as I believe it has the potential to truly impact our community and society on a large scale,” she said. “Therefore, I wanted to compete for the funding to get us the resources we need to make this program a reality in our county and eventually for the state of Florida. I will continue to work on the board of directors and move toward the early stages of implementation.”
Awards, given by Florida Blue, included $10,000 for first place, $5,000 for second and $2,500 for third. While Ms. Kurji did not place in the top three, she did still earn a $1,000 award for being a finalist in the competition.
“I had never pitched in front of a room full of judges willing to award $10,000. It was definitely exhausting and nerve racking, but I learned a lot about entrepreneurship,” she said. “I feel confident in the power of education and advocacy. I plan to donate the $1,000 awarded to me for my finalist status in this competition to NAMI Hillsborough and continue dedicating my time toward implementing and evaluating mental health programs.”
USF was highly represented during the event, with the winner of the $10,000 award being a team of USF doctoral students in the USF College of Nursing for their idea to develop a baby bottle nipple that mirrors the natural shape and flow of the baby’s mother.
Ms. Kurji, who hopes to graduate in Dec. 2019, said she plans to dedicate her future to helping those suffering from mental health issues.
“Our society cannot keep ignoring the multitudes of issues that arise from poor mental health such as a reduction in life expectancy, increase in comorbidities, and overall poor quality of life,” she said. “I would like to split my time between practice and research. Having been in academia for most of my life, I would like to branch out and use my organization, management, and research skills in the field.”
Story by Ms. Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health