It’s a lot like any other doctor’s office. The walls are an unassuming shade. There’s a biggish sofa. And your therapist asks you short questions in an even tone of voice. Except you’re sitting at a screen and the therapist is a finely programmed bit of software. Don’t worry, we didn’t just cast you some odd mash up of Lisa Kudrow Web Therapy and Spike Jonze’s Her. We’re talking about some very real technology. With funding from the DARPA, “Ellie”, the virtual therapist, owes her existence to the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies.
Ellie relies on super intense voice and facial scan, as described here in this NPR article. One of the cool things she can do is analyse smiles, comparing them with “a database of soldiers who have returned from combat”, in order to detect depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in her ‘patients’.
One of the major blockages people have with seeking therapy is stigma – it can cling like a pesky bit of toilet paper on the shoe. The medium of the Ellie program itself makes it feel a whole lot more approachable. As a software, it offers distance and anonymity, which can be a comfort requirement for a lot of people. But Ellie is also human enough to draw out responses from the ‘patient’.
The International Medical Corps, which works particularly in the area of humanitarian crises, has said that “mental illness is one of the great invisible burdens on all societies, accounting for 4 of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide.” But it just isn’t being openly addressed like it needs to.
In this video, Fusion’s digital producer Cleo Stiller looks at this diagnostic tool as a natural progression from other electronic means of therapy – over telephones, or through emojis. The stigma around mental health is gradually being countered, especially with Mental Health Awareness activities on university campuses. But until such time as seeking help can be as easy as buying coffee, maybe a privately accessed, affordable software can make it easier to get the help we need.