Virtual Therapists Help Veterans Open Up About PTSD

Published: October 17, 2017
Category: News

WHEN US TROOPS return home from a tour of duty, each person finds their own way to resume their daily lives. But they also, every one, complete a written survey called the Post-Deployment Health Assessment. It’s designed to evaluate service members’ psychiatric health and ferret out symptoms of conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress, so common among veterans.
But the survey, designed to give the military insight into the mental health of its personnel, can wind up distorting it. Thing is, the PDHA isn’t anonymous, and the results go on service members’ records—which can deter them from opening up. Anonymous, paper-based surveys could help, but you can’t establish a good rapport with a series of yes/no exam questions. Veterans need somebody who can help. Somebody who can carry their secrets confidentially, and without judgement. Somebody they can trust.
Or, perhaps, something.
“People are very open to feeling connected to things that aren’t people,” says Gale Lucas, a psychologist at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies and first author of a new, Darpa-funded study that finds soldiers are more likely to divulge symptoms of PTSD to a virtual interviewer—an artificially intelligent avatar, rendered in 3-D on a television screen—than in existing post-deployment health surveys. The findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, suggest that virtual interviewers could prove to be even better than human therapists at helping soldiers open up about their mental health.
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