Even during the most challenging times in history, it's important to highlight those who are continuing to follow their dreams and are taking strides to make the world a better place. Each month, Seventeen is honoring young people as Voices of Change, those who are making a difference in their community and the world at large.
On May 23, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy labeled youth mental health “the defining public health issue of our time.” It’s a crisis that has worsened over the past decade, as rates of depression and anxiety heighten among children aged 3 to 17, according to research by JAMA Pediatrics. Etasha Donthi, 18, is acutely aware of this. A couple of years ago, her close friend tragically passed away from suicide and Etasha was confronted with a powerful, albeit difficult, question she knew she had to find an answer to: “How can I build something that can make a positive impact within the mental health space, and potentially save lives?”
Like most who grew up in the digital age, Etasha could not ignore social media and its impact, specifically on mental health. “I've come to realize that many people use it as a platform to express their mental health struggles and emotions,” Etasha tells Seventeen. “However, amid the vast sea of posts, these expressions often go unnoticed.” So in between prom prep, midterm exams, and college applications, Etasha taught herself how to code via online research, YouTube, and female-led STEM organizations such as the Karlie Kloss-founded Kode With Klossy program.
Now a high school senior, Etasha has developed Livity, a patent-pending novel algorithm that has the ability to identify suicidal ideation and mental health struggles within posts uploaded to apps like Twitter and Reddit, and then, connect those individuals with free mental health resources. In 2021, she founded She The Change, a podcast and non-profit organization that highlights female leaders and changemakers who are challenging and changing the status quo in male-dominated fields. “Connecting with each other and understanding we’re not alone is a huge step towards making change and realizing, hey if they were able to do it, maybe I can too,” Etasha shares.
After graduation, she’s set to start classes at the University of California, Berkeley, as an engineering student, and as she continues to balance the responsibilities of being a full-time student and entrepreneur, Etasha’s mission to amplify gender equity and be a force of change only grows stronger. Here, Etasha Donthi, Seventeen’s latest Voice of Change, discusses the intricacies behind Livity, her journey to finding a supportive community in STEM, and why it’s so critical to follow your passion.
17: How does your novel algorithm, Livity, work?
Etasha Donthi: Livity utilizes natural language processing (NLP), an area of artificial intelligence, and sentiment analysis to identify suicidal ideation within social media posts. The algorithm works by analyzing text data, such as Twitter threads and Reddit posts, using AI techniques. Specifically, the algorithm employs sentiment analysis, which involves determining the emotional tone and sentiment expressed in the text. By applying this sentiment analysis approach, the algorithm can recognize language indicative of suicidal ideation and mental health concerns within social media posts. Livity is a novel algorithm, so I’m in the process of patenting the algorithm.
17: After the algorithm recognizes this language, what happens next?
ED: Although the algorithm is not currently publicly available, our prototype operates by recognizing language indicative of suicidal ideation and then connecting those individuals with free mental health resources. The goal is to connect those individuals with mental health resources that they might not already have access to or might not know are available within their area.
Right now, we're working on integrating this algorithm into an app and extension, where it can identify suicidal ideation within the existing social media apps we use on a daily basis, like Twitter and Reddit, and provide additional resources directly to individuals.
17: How do you balance being a full-time student and founder of a tech start-up?
ED: It's certainly been a learning experience. I dove into the tech start-up world headfirst, and am still in the early stages. Time management has been a huge part of building this start-up alongside my schoolwork. But it’s such an important venture and so near and dear to my heart, I can’t not make time for it. Sometimes I take calls or business meetings in the school cafeteria.
17: What inspired you to pursue a career in tech and entrepreneurship?
ED: I never anticipated going into the tech field when I first entered high school, but it's something I fell in love with. Some of my first STEM classes in school had very few girls, if any. It was an incredibly difficult period — in those formative years, I needed to see representation as a woman and person of color and be surrounded by people who understood my perspective within those classrooms. Not seeing that was a huge difficulty. I experienced microaggressions and incredibly competitive, cliquey environments that made it difficult to explore this untapped passion of mine authentically. It wasn't until I participated in various Women in STEM organizations that I found a sense of community, which was a huge help, especially during the COVID years. I found like-minded people, and although they weren’t in my town or area, I was able to forge a connection and realize that I was not alone in my interests. There are other people like me who are just as passionate, excited, and interested in STEM and are facing the same difficulties in the classroom as I am.
17: What's your biggest piece of advice to young people in STEM?
ED: Your voice matters. You matter. Have faith in yourself. Imposter syndrome is an incredibly real feeling, but realize that you are not alone. Finding a sense of community and realizing that there are other people just like you, who are experiencing inequity within these male-dominated spaces, helps you realize that you belong and your voice matters.
17: What does being a Voice of Change honoree mean to you?
ED: Being a Voice of Change means serving as a source of inspiration and representation that many may not have. It’s a huge, huge step towards making progress for women, especially women of color. It’s the most gratifying feeling to be recognized for making an impact.
Leah Campano is an Associate Editor at Seventeen, where she covers pop culture, entertainment news, health, and politics. On the weekends, you can probably find her watching marathons of vintage Real Housewives episodes or searching for New York City’s best almond croissants.