All you need is 'Ash': Chatbot designed to boost teen mental health at school

Monash University researchers have developed an Australian-first chatbot to provide teenage students with wellbeing support in the classroom and beyond.

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As effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to upset the lives of teenagers, a new Australian-first chatbot has been launched to provide students with psychoeducational and wellbeing support to encourage positive mental health.

Dr Christine Grove from Monash University’s Faculty of Education developed the chatbot, called ‘Ash’, in response to increasing numbers of youth struggling to cope with stress at school, feelings of depression and anxiety, and the lack of adequate help for their problems.

The topics covered by the chatbot include both positive and negative aspects of life, including school, family, friends or relationships, the future, religion, books, games, art, sports, exercise and music.

The chatbot can also handle common phrases/utterances by young people, ranging from common greetings like ‘hello’ to coarse language, and can detect longer phrases like ‘how are you?’ and ‘where did you come from?’. It can also respond to commands, such as ‘stop messaging me’ or ‘leave me alone’, with ‘Ash’ ceasing to send messages accordingly.

Importantly, the chatbot also detects trigger words, such as cut, death and hurt, and sentences that alert relevant primary support contacts or medical systems if youth are ‘at risk’ of self-harm or suicide.

Additional topics such as drugs/alcohol, sexuality, and identity – which were identified by youth during the research and development phase – may be integrated into the chatbot in the future.

This technology has already commenced rollout in some schools across Victoria, and has the potential to be rolled out internationally.

Dr Grove said the chatbot was created to communicate evidence-based resources, wellbeing support, educational mental health information and adaptive coping strategies to support students in times of need and for their ongoing developmental growth.

“There are many young people who experience mental health and wellbeing challenges. A potential negative mental health trigger for some youth is a struggle to cope with stress at school, feelings of depression and anxiety and availability of adequate help for these stressors,” Dr Grove said.

“’Ash’ is an online robot who can make jokes, chat about your day or share suggestions whenever you need support. If students are having a bad day at school, or they’re unsure of how to cope with learning or with friends then it will give them suggestions or strategies that may help.

“It can also connect students with a supportive teacher or professional if they need an extra hand.”

Almost a quarter of people aged 15-19 have symptoms of serious mental illness, with modelling suggesting this figure is increasing as a result of COVID-19.

Dr Grove said young people who experience mental health difficulties may disengage from their schooling or the community through absenteeism, being socially distant or financially disadvantaged.

“Positive coping and resilience support the development of problem solving skills and build and maintain interpersonal relationships, all of which enhance an individual’s ability to perform and contribute meaningfully in daily life,” Dr Grove said.

“However, there is a need for urgent, ongoing online support that is interactive, responsive and tailored to the specific needs of youth.”

A chatbot is a digital technology application powered by artificial intelligence that simulates the conversation of another person. A recent scoping review identified 41 chatbots that can be used for mental health, with most implemented in the United States.

They are mainly used for therapy, training and screening, with most concentrated on autism or depression. However, none were identified for the youth population and with a focus on mental health literacy.

Nearly half of the students involved in the research testing said they experienced regular stress, mainly from school. As participants predominately used Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Snapchat, as well as news websites, they welcomed the introduction of a chatbot as another vital online information tool.

The chatbot links students with online recommended resources, such as Reachout – a website with coping strategies – and Smiling Mind – an application that provides mindfulness and relaxation strategies. ‘Ash’ also provides 24/7 professional support that connects students with Kids Helpline and headspace.

While ‘Ash’ provides an important resource for students and their mental health status, Dr Grove said the chatbot is designed to be used in partnership with trained psychologists and medical practitioners at schools and in the community.

“Given youth engage regularly in the online world and the waits experienced in schools for wellbeing support, there appears to be an opportunity to potentially provide a bridge in conjunction with school personnel,” Dr Grove said.

“This technology taps into an urgent need in our community to protect and promote the mental wellbeing of our teenagers, especially as the world recovers from the harsh COVID-19 pandemic.

This project was funded by the Monash Education Deans Early Career Researchers Award, in partnership with technology partner Botanic, the Faculty of Information Technology’s Department of Data Science & AI, and the Monash Data Futures Institute.

The research article titled: ‘Co-developing a Mental Health and Wellbeing Chatbot with and for Young People’ was published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychiatry. To download a copy, please visit https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.606041/full

MEDIA ENQUIRIES
Leigh Dawson
T: +61 455 368 260 E: media@monash.edu