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Researchers at Ulster University have secured a number of projects amounting to over £1million to explore the use of Artificially Intelligent chatbots to support those living with mental ill health.

A chatbot is a computer program designed to provide conversations with human users. They offer a new way to help people discuss, reflect and deal with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. They also offer 24-hour support and can provide feedback based on mood logs and personalised advice on coping strategies.

According to the NHS, 16 million people in the UK experience a mental illness.

Dr Raymond Bond, Senior Lecturer in Data Analytics at Ulster University said:

“Given computers are social actors, a number of people might be more willing to open up to a virtual agent rather than a human therapist due to the level of anonymity as well as a number of other factors. However, many research questions are still to be answered including the ethical use of chatbots and the extent to which they should simulate empathy and emotional support, especially given that they portray human-like characteristics including a personality and even humour. Chatbots are likely to be used to augment current services - not replace them”

Maurice Mulvenna, Professor of Computer Science at Ulster University said:

“Chatbots and smart speakers are a very recent technology underpinned by decades of research in natural language understanding. The challenge is to provide conversational chatbot support in a transparent, fluid manner.”

Siobhan O’Neill, Professional of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University said:

“With the prevalence of smart speakers and chatbots, there is a public need for this type of research, especially given that mental health and suicide prevention remains a key societal challenge and there is a lack of 24 hour e-mental health services.”

The projects have been funded by the H2020 programme, ESRC and InvestNI.

One of the projects includes the development of a digital Support Hub for Inspire Workplaces who delivers mental health and wellbeing services in over 300 organisations in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The Support Hub which includes a chatbot interface provides employees with general mental health and wellbeing assistance and is currently being trialled in a range of employers.

Dr David Cameron, Clinical Lead at Inspire Workplaces said:

“Chatbot technology is a game changer in opening up and broadening access to mental health support services. Currently around 100,000 employees are taking part in the Inspire Support Hub trial and we are already seeing impressive levels of user engagement. We were delighted when our support hub recently won the Industry/Academia Collaboration Award at the Centre for Behavioural Change in UCL.  We see this as a first step in exploring how new and developing technology can complement existing face to face interventions to help us deliver the highest quality care and support to all of our clients.”