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Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

The Future of Mental Health Specialists: Robotic Counseling

Psychologist Albert Rizzo and computer-scientist Louis-Philippe Morency from the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies have created a virtual technology that will assist mental health specialists in assessing patients with psychological distress, specifically those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The technology is in the form of a female social worker named Ellie Navarro, and she was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense to help evaluate veterans due to the increase in military suicides over the past few years. According to the DoD, there were 177 active-duty suicides in 2012, up from 156 in 2010. The Army alone already reported 109 suicides in 2013, an alarming number despite current prevention efforts.


Military counselors claim to have difficulties getting soldiers to talk about their emotional problems, and that is where Ellie comes in. Ellie is not meant to replace a human counselor or diagnose patients; rather, she is meant to objectively monitor body language, facial expressions, and different aspects of the voice. By analyzing nearly 60 different body, facial, and vocal components at a rate of 30 measurements per second, Ellie can compare the patient’s behavior to that of a person who is depressed. For example, Ellie asks a patient, “When is the last time you felt really happy?” The patient’s head drops slightly, he sighs deeply and mutters “uh”, he repeats the question to himself, then pauses and stutters before answering it. Ellie is able to analyze these subtleties in real-time, and so she responds, “I noticed you were hesitant on that one. Would you say you are generally a happy person?” Not only is Ellie able to analyze the patient, but she is programmed to be able to respond with strategically placed verbal cues, such as a well-timed “uh-huh” or a pause in conversation. Albert Rizzo says that Ellie has over 200 recorded “uh-huh’s”, and that these small gestures can be really powerful in a counseling setting. They give Ellie a human-like component, and cause her patients to open up and be more comfortable. Although some believe that a computer cannot properly interpret human emotions and actions, Rizzo is confident that Ellie will be an extremely useful tool in the mental health field. This summer, Ellie will be tested on dozens of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to Ellie is another virtual human named William “Bill” Ford. Bill has already been tested and approved to help military personnel and their friends and families. He is a Vietnam veteran who had PTSD and depression, and his purpose is to be a friend to those who need to talk about their issues. Whereas Ellie is meant for face-to-face interaction, Bill responds to users through an interactive typing conversation, and can provide online resources to those seeking help.

Together, Ellie and Bill are a part of a healthcare guide program called SimCoach. To talk to Bill or to learn more about SimCoach, go to www.simcoach.org. An example video of Ellie interacting with two different patients can found on the Institute of Creative Technologies’ “SimSensei” webpage: http://ict.usc.edu/prototypes/simsensei/.

June marks PTSD Awareness Month. PTSD occurs when a traumatic event triggers intense stress. This stress can cause nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of panic, or cause people to avoid situations that may remind them of the traumatic event. PTSD can affect anyone, not just military troops. Fortunately, PTSD is treatable through multiple forms of treatment, which may include, but are not limited to, cognitive behavioral therapy, group or family therapy, and medication. For more resources about PTSD, visit http://www.ptsd.va.gov/about/ptsd-awareness/ptsd_awareness_month.asp.

By Sarah Roberts, 6/11/2013