Some 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illness, according to the World Health Organization. Many of them, however, do not have access to a mental health care professional, either because there are none in their area or the care is unaffordable. In the United States, for example, a patient’s average cost of therapy without health insurance is $150 per session.
IEEE Member Wai-Tat Fu, associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his graduate student Ping-Jing Yang have collaborated to develop Mindbot, a virtual therapist. Still a prototype, it relies on natural language processing and machine learning to interact with patients the way therapists do. Fu and Yang’s research, “Mindbot: A Social-Based Medical Virtual Assistant,” has been published in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.
HOW IT WORKS
Mindbot uses the Facebook Messenger chat platform, in which a patient can converse with the virtual therapist as if it’s a real doctor. The program starts off with a question such as How do you feel today? As the conversation continues, the program responds accordingly. If, for example, someone writes that he feels depressed, the virtual therapist might ask what events have occurred recently.
The program tracks users’ activities and moods over time. The researchers have tested the program with patients from different geographic locations and demographic backgrounds.
“One unexpected observation,” Fu notes, “is people have expressed they prefer chatting with a bot more than a real therapist.”
With Mindbot, patients can be anonymous, and therefore they are more comfortable sharing private information openly, according to feedback from testing.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Virtual assistants such as Mindbot cannot yet respond as effectively as therapists, but Fu is working to give his program the ability to participate in longer conversations and switch topics.
To do that, the researchers are incorporating feedback from professional therapists on how they respond in various scenarios.
The other drawback to Mindbot is the virtual therapist can’t pick up on body language. Video chatting could help with that, Fu says.
The goal now is to make the system adapt to users based on their needs, Fu says, and to help fill the gap of access to mental health professionals.