This Cupertino Teen is Tackling the Mental Health Crisis Twofold

Every once in a while, Shalini Rao will ask her mom, Krish Dustakar, a question in the engineering realm that elicits wonderment. That’s tough to do, considering Krish is an aerospace engineer at Maxar in Palo Alto.

“She’ll ask me about things that I’m not even aware of,” Dustakar said. “Her questions make me want to learn more about my own job. She’s always been the inquisitive type and needing to find the answers for everything.”

Rao is developing a galvanic skin response (GSR) wearable that detects emotions and automatically notifies a connected support system during mental health crises such as panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

The 14-year-old Cupertino sophomore has a lofty goal to pair the wearable with her app, LivelyKit, a one-stop platform that offers users stress coping mechanisms, journaling space and a one-on-one chat function with a mental health expert.

As the crusade for improved mental health ramps up in the U.S., apps to help people meditate or connect with counselors have grown in popularity. For Rao, developing an innovative product that addresses mental health hits close to home.

“I identified problems within my close circle, in my family,” Rao said. “Being so interested in technology and seeing how powerful it is, it really made me want to come up with a technological solution.”

Dustakar is quick to praise her daughter’s empathy after watching Rao spend her summers researching how pervasive mental health problems can be.

“She sees the fears and struggles students go through,” Dustakar said. “Especially because we’re in a school district where students are under a lot of stress because there’s so much competition and expectations to do well.”

Rao’s idea for LivelyKit stemmed from the mental health wearable she has been working on since last September. She entered the wearable in the Synopsis Science and Technology Championship, an annual showcase competition featuring some of the best and brightest students in Santa Clara County.

Rao spends her time continually refining LivelyKit, which she hopes to debut on the market soon. First, she’ll add more options to the app, including notifications that pop up with reminders and tips at the first sign of distress. “I’m mainly trying to have the app automatically activated whenever the wearable detects emotional stress,” she said. “I want this where users can be routed to the recommended resources.”

By the end of 2021, Rao hopes to complete the wearable, which could be either a ring or wristband depending on which platform gives the superior information. When she’s not working on software and hardware, Rao likes teaching and playing the guitar.

This summer, she helped lead a creative writing boot camp. “A big motivation for her is whenever she learns something, she wants to share it with her peers or anyone who wants to learn,” Dustakar said. “She’s all about sharing her knowledge.”

The young inventor not only thought up LivelyKit, but is also learning to code to develop the technology—a vital skill in Silicon Valley’s tech-saturated job market. She’s been troubleshooting nonstop. “It was a completely unfamiliar concept and kind of difficult to get used to at first,” Rao said. “There were a lot of problems I had to sift through, but they challenged me to find solutions.”

Technovation Girls, a 12-week entrepreneurship program for girls to develop mobile apps to solve real-world problems, helped her build a business and marketing plan.

And Rao already has words of advice for ambitious peers working on a big project: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you’re probably going to make a lot,” she said. “Embrace that to help whatever you’re making.”

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