For the Family

Northwest Prevention Science is developing a family-centered mental health software

What started as academic research at the University of Oregon is on its way to the marketplace. 

Created at the UO’s Northwest Prevention Science Institute, the Family Check-Up is a mental health behavioral intervention model designed to help parents identify their strengths and improve their relationship with their children. 

The recently formed company Northwest Prevention Science is taking that model and developing it into software to increase mental health access for families with children. 

It is designed so a practitioner can interview a family and observe them interacting together, says Christoper Hazen, the company’s co-founder and chief operating and financial officer. Then the family receives feedback on how the family can work on their strengths and improvements. 

The company says by going online, it could help transform government social services by improving access to mental health services. The software version of Family Check-Up is being developed when the U.S. and Oregon are experiencing a shortage of mental health practitioners in K-12 schools. The National Association of School Psychologists reports that in 2019-2020, the U.S. had a ratio of 1,211 students for every psychologist; in Oregon, 1,659 students for every psychologist. The professional association recommends a ratio of one psychologist for every 500 students. 

Although Northwest Prevention Science was founded early 2021 with the goal of sending its software version of the behavioral model in 2022, the Family Check-Up has a 25-year history. 

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Beth Stormshak

The Family Check-Up as a behavioral intervention model started in 1996, says Beth Stormshak, Ph.D. She is one of the developers of the model and founder and CEO of the company. The model was developed at the UO and has received funding from groups such as National Institute of Health, the Department of Education and Centers for Disease Control, she adds.  

Over the years, researchers studied the Family Check-Up model’s effectiveness, she says. The demographics of the families involved with the program range from parents with children of various ages, from young to middle school, and researchers followed children involved with the model into adulthood to see its impact. 

The model is for families who have concerns about their child’s behavior or mental health and wellness, Stormshak says. “It’s broadly applicable to a lot of different families who are interested in their child’s behavior, thinking about their interactions with their child and engaging with the Family Check-Up model to consider their own strengths as a parent and things they might improve on,” she adds.  

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Christopher Hazen

Hazen says the program is designed for children from 2 to 17 years old. “Maybe disruptive in the classroom. Maybe not showing up if they’re older or failing out of classes,” he says. He says that when “teachers are like, ‘I can’t deal with this. This is beyond my ability to address in the classroom,’” that’s the scenario when a family gets involved with the program. 

Hazen says Lane County Public Health has used the program for years, as have schools in North Clackamas School District. “It’s demonstrated very good results in reducing emergency room visits by having the interventions in families where there are challenging behaviors,” he says, referring to children who are experiencing violence at home, including child abuse and suicide attempts. By offering those families mental health support, Hazen says, the Family Check-Up has social benefits, including the potential of preventing someone from going through the criminal justice system later in life. 

Northwest Prevention Science is developing the Family Check-Up software as a way to serve more families but with fewer hours needed from the mental health practitioner, Stormshak says. 

“The Family Check-Up online is a way for practitioners to build a larger client base, able to serve more families and use an approach that’s briefer and more cost-effective than other approaches out there,” Stormshak says. “It would reduce wait time for families to get in for mental health services, but wouldn’t lose any of the benefits because we know it’s an effective intervention.” 

And she says the online model is a way to make family-oriented mental health services more accessible. 

“There are so many families out there right now who don’t have access to mental health or behavioral support — or they do have access and the wait is too long,” she says. “Or there are barriers. In Oregon, this is a rural state. So we have lots of families who live an hour or more away from a mental health facility, which creates many barriers for getting support with their child.” 

The software tracks the family’s outcomes. Although it’s not meant to be a substitute for clinician and the family, Hazen adds, it’s a way for the clinician to work with more families.

Signing up a family to the mental health service starts with an intake interview, he says, and is followed by an in-depth assessment. “It’s mental health-related content that they engage with interactively, and the clinician can see their progress when they’re not meeting,” he adds. 

And, Hazen says, he sees Northwest Prevention Science playing an even bigger role in the transition of making publicly funded mental and behavioral health care programs more cost effective that reduces the overall costs of social services across government. “Well-designed software is a tried and true tactic to sustain implementation of effective programs,” he says. 

Currently, Stormshak and her team are working on a new project with middle school families who are interested in learning tools for parenting their teens in the context of COVID-19.  Interested families may go to MiddleSchoolStudy.org for more information