Virtual interviewer sitting on an armchair

Combat veterans open up about mental health issues to virtual consultant, study finds

Image credit: University of Southern California

In a University of Southern California study, soldiers and veterans spoke to a computer-generated interviewer about their mental health, proving more willing to open up than they were with a survey.

Soldiers who have been in combat are particularly vulnerable to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can linger for years after the traumatic events and cause upsetting emotions, flashbacks and nightmares, severely limiting the patients’ quality of life.

The shame associated with suffering from poor mental health can result in many people - particularly men - failing to ask for help.

“Allowing PTSD to go untreated can potentially have disastrous consequences, including suicide attempts,” said Dr Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California.

Given that PTSD is common among soldiers, the US military requires troops to fill out the Post-Deployment Health Assessment, which measures symptoms of PTSD. Results which suggest that a soldier is suffering trauma, however, can affect their career, meaning that survey respondents are reluctant to be honest.

Human interviewers, being capable of forming a connection with an interviewee, can encourage honesty, although at the expense of anonymity.

Dr Lucas and her colleagues, seeing the drawbacks of surveys and human interviewers, suggested that engaging soldiers with a virtual interviewer could provide both anonymity and a degree of social connection, through welcoming gestures and responses.

This theory was tested out on a group of soldiers returning to the US following a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. The soldiers first filled out the standard PTSD symptoms surveys required of them and then spoke to a virtual interviewer. The virtual interviewer chatted to them about other subjects before asking questions about their symptoms.

The researchers found that the soldiers were far more willing to reveal symptoms of PTSD to the virtual interviewer than on the surveys. A second round of testing, which involved a larger group of soldiers and veterans, produced similar findings.

“These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr Lucas. “By relieving 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.”

This could, if rolled out on a larger scale, allow some soldiers to access treatment for PTSD, the researchers hope.

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