Can virtual reality (VR) help teens access critical mental health resources in the COVID-19 era?

The Seattle Public Library has just been awarded a $247,307 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to explore this question in partnership with two other Library systems: DC Public Library in Washington D.C. and Fayette Public Library and Museum Archive in La Grange, Texas.

Titled “Caring About Teen Mental Health,” the two-year project will work with teens and undergraduate interns to research and co-design virtual reality experiences that can help vulnerable youth with mental health issues post COVID-19.

“We can mitigate the pandemic’s mental health impacts on an already vulnerable adolescent population by engaging teens in creating solutions,” said Juan Rubio, Public Services program manager at The Seattle Public Library, who will serve as project director for “Caring About Teen Mental Health. “Through this initiative, teens and young adults will co-design VR experiences, which have been shown to promote mindfulness and emotional regulation in teens and can support their long-term well-being.”

Rubio has led several projects at the Library using participatory design, including KidsTeam and the creation of virtual reality experiences on topics such as the Duwamish River and the Great Seattle Fire. Co-design can encompass activities ranging from defining and solving problems to prototyping, iterating, testing and releasing solutions.

“Co-design focuses on creating with youth instead of creating for youth,” said Rubio.

The grant was awarded as part of $13,800,000 in IMLS CARES Act grants to support the role of museums and libraries in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Just 68 projects were funded in total from 1,700 applications received.

“By bringing together three unique library systems, staffs and groups of young people, we will be able to gather information about the variety of teen mental health needs as they occur in different environments and build a framework and set of resources that can work across different regions of the United States,” the proposal states.

Two professors from the University of Washington, Elin Bjorling and Jin Ha Lee, will be co-principal investigators, bringing extensive experience in mental health for teens, virtual reality and co-design processes. The undergraduate interns will be recruited from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation at the University of Washington and Howard University.

The project also addresses digital equity by ensuring that the teens and young adults involved will receive all necessary technology, including virtual reality equipment, a computer and internet access, as well as a stipend to participate in the project. Public health guidelines to minimize the spread of COVID-19 will be followed, including virtual meetings and no sharing of technology.

Find more information about the project in the IMLS announcements about the specific project and about the IMLS CARES Act grants. The Seattle Public Library Foundation assisted with preparation of this grant.


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The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.