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Research Team At IIT Kanpur Develops Online Tool That’ll Help With Mental Health Issues

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The researchers from the Department of Biological Sciences and Bio-engineering, IIT Kanpur, are working on a study to help individuals deal with mental health issues using helpful online tools. The team headed by Prof. Nitin Gupta, in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Department of HSS (Psychology) and Dr. Alok Bajpai, Visiting Psychiatrist, Counseling Service at the Institute, have developed TreadWill.

TreadWill is a website which uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help individuals deal with depressive symptoms. In an interview with Campus Watch, Prof. Nitin Gupta spoke about TreadWill and mental health assistance for people.

Shivani Gautam: How would you describe TreadWill for the uninitiated audience?

Nitin Gupta: TreadWill is an online tool that provides the same type of psychotherapy that one gets in a one time session with a therapist. India has many people who suffer from various types of psychiatric problems like depression or anxiety but the number of therapists who are providing psychotherapy is very small. Also, most people are hesitant to talk to someone in person and want to remain anonymous. Considering these circumstances we developed TreadWill.

SG: Who all are a part of this project? Is this exclusively run by students and researchers at IIT Kanpur?

NG: The project started in my lab and has been worked upon by many students. Arko Ghosh, a PhD student, was one of the first ones to work on it and he has been helped by many other students. We have also taken help from our counseling service for ideas and content and taken suggestions from our psychiatrist Dr. Alok Bajpai.

SG: What was the motivation behind TreadWill? Why the name ‘TreadWill’?

NG: We wanted a name that is catchy and easy to remember and also somehow reflected the application that it performs. ‘TreadWill’ is derived from ‘treadmill’ which as you know is an exercise machine. Similarly, ‘TreadWill’ is like an exercise for the mind. We wanted to do something related to computer application, and IIT Kanpur provided the platform. My background is in neuroscience and we wanted to do something related to the brain. We thought about doing something that could help people with mental health issues.

SG: Do you think TreadWill could be an alternative to going to a psychiatrist?

NG: I wouldn’t use the word alternative because for severe cases certainly one should go to a psychiatrist. However, TreadWill could be very useful in mild to moderate cases. Also, it can be a complementary tool for someone who is visiting a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists usually have a tight schedule while TreadWill could be used at whichever time is convenient for the person in the privacy of their room.

SG: Currently, you are conducting a study to test TreadWill, how have people responded to it? How do you plan to market it further?

NG: We didn’t want to release the program before knowing how useful it is, right now it is in limited access. Once we see that it’s useful, we will release it for the public. So far more than 150 people have enrolled.

SG: What are your views on student suicides, especially in engineering colleges? How do you think the college administration can help in this regard?

NG: It has been a problem. I am aware of many suicide cases in different IITs, but I am sure it’s a general problem in most colleges. It’s not just a problem in India, MIT for instance has an even higher rate of suicide than colleges here. It’s a general problem in the student community because of the high competition or other pressures. One of the reasons why students reach this stage is because they don’t get early intervention. If they are provided some help while the case is mild then it may not aggravate into a suicide. One way the administration can help is by checking on students from time to time. So far colleges have counseling services but they are quite overburdened.

SG: The internet already has apps that deal with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, how is TreadWill different from these?

NG: One of the basic problems of these apps is that they are not very engaging. People do use them but soon get very bored and don’t bother using them anymore. So, we focused on making the content more engaging and personalized. In most apps, every user gets pretty much the same content and most aren’t personalized to an individual’s need. This is what we have tried to do, we have made the content more personalized and are working within that paradigm.

SG: There is a lot of stigma attached to mental health, especially in India it is ignored. People are often afraid or embarrassed to ask for help . How do you think we can combat this issue? Did you consider this before working on TreadWill?

NG: The stigma is obviously one of the major problems. There are people who realize they are going through these issues but aren’t willing to go to a therapist because they are embarrassed. These people can especially get benefitted by our automated tool because it maintains anonymity. I guess when more people become aware of this problem, it will help them to treat it. There are some initiatives which have been started to raise awareness about mental health but I think we need more of these to normalize mental health issues and make people more comfortable discussing it. We will have to work upon the availability of diagnosis too for the people.


Image source: Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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