Can A Virtual Therapist Help With PTSD?

Recently I looked at the growing number of mental health apps emerging on the market, and especially those utilizing AI to automate proceedings.  A new paper examining such services suggested a number of pros and cons.  The authors suggest that having an AI based counselor could help to overcome some of the challenges people face in opening up to another person about their problems. What’s more, access to services is not always easy, so virtual conversational agents provide an accessible means of getting some support.

The potential of this is highlighted in a recent paper that examines the use of ‘virtual therapists’ to support people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It finds that soldiers were more likely to open up when speaking with a virtual avatar than when talking to a human, or indeed when taking a survey.  The authors believe the avatar provides the advantages of anonymity whilst also providing a degree of social connectivity.

PTSD support

All US soldiers are given mental health assessments after a tour of duty.  This assessment typically consists of a written survey, known as the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA).  Whilst the survey is designed to test for PTSD, the results of it can have a significant impact on the career of the soldier.  It results in less than honest responses.

The researchers wanted to test whether their virtual interviewer might do better at encouraging soldiers to open up by combining ‘real’ interview skills with a sense of anonymity.

The avatar was put through its paces with a platoon that had recently completed a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.  Each troop was required to complete the official PDHA survey, an anonymous survey and then the anonymous interview with the virtual avatar.

The results suggest that the troops revealed significantly more useful information than both the named and anonymous surveys.  The experiment was then repeated with a larger group of soldiers, with the virtual avatar pitted only against the anonymous PDHA survey.  As before, the soldiers revealed more to the avatar than in the survey, especially when they only had mild symptoms of PTSD.

“These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for post-traumatic stress disorder,” the authors say. “By receiving anonymous feedback from a virtual human interviewer that they are at risk for PTSD, they could be encouraged to seek help without having their symptoms flagged on their military record.”

The researchers believe that the results highlight the potential of such systems not only to collect information but impart information.  It will be interesting to see if their beliefs come to fruition.

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