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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Teen develops chatbot to address mental health issues arising from Covid-19

The chatbot allows a user to seek help from a mental health professional while maintaining anonymity.

Written by Ruchika Goswamy | Pune |
Updated: August 10, 2021 1:07:37 pm
16-year-old Ishaan Singh

Prolonged indoor confinement and curbs in movements owing to the pandemic not only crippled social life but also resulted in people being alone, confronted with their problems within the four walls. “While the pandemic opened up the conversation on mental health and well-being manifold, there is still a long way to go,” says 16-year-old Ishaan Singh.

With a foresightedness for the dire need of attention to mental health, Singh, a resident of Mumbai began with awareness campaigns in April 2020. He gathered two key issues at hand — the stigma associated with mental health and cost rendered are the primary hindrances to seeking help. He developed InayaConnect, a mental health chatbot, which acts as the first point of contact for individuals suffering mental distress.

The chatbot allows a user to seek help from a mental health professional while maintaining anonymity. With a systematic set of non-probing questions and pre-set values, the AI of the chatbot directs the user to the most suitable mental health practitioner. Since its inception in September last year, the platform has reached 3,000+ users over 50+ countries.

“I had many friends who were undergoing mental stress. At the same time, my grandfather who usually would be out and about, had a sudden transition in his routine when the lockdown was imposed. Observing the effect of lack of human interaction alongside the collective fear of the virus, grief, job losses, financial stress and academic distress caused me to look into it further. While I began with awareness, I soon realised that unlike Dubai where I have spent my initial years, mental healthcare is not widely accessible and affordable in India. It compelled me to take an active action on it and developed InayaConnect as an attempt to nip it in the bud,” said Singh.

To begin with, Singh’s target audience for the chatbot were students, senior citizens and corporate employees. “My intention is to alienate the idea that mental health is a thing for the rich and to address the ‘log kya kahenge’ mindset among people. Secondly, I also wanted to lessen the rut one has to go through to seek the correct help” he said.

Singh, an IB student from Aditya Birla World Academy, with the technical strength with knowledge of artificial intelligence, programming and coding, reached out to mental health practitioners and organisations that work in the sphere of mental well-being to have a clear approach.

“On the technical end, I developed the chatbot on Google’s Dialogflow as it allowed me more flexibility and I could go through several renditions. The Word to Vectors methodology in Natural Language Processing (NLP) helps in scoring the sentiments each having a preset value that the user can fill. The interface was designed and made more user friendly with the help of Kommunicate. Meanwhile, my mother who is a homeopathy practitioner and a counselling psychologist, guided me through developing the initial questions that I tried out on the chatbot. Subsequently, I partnered with Vandrevala Foundation, Juno clinic that provides low-cost sessions and Taare social, which works specifically for senior citizens to data text the chatbot,” he said.

Inaya roughly translates into help, kindness and empathy and that is what the chatbot wishes to emulate, said Singh. “The chatbot is not an alternative to therapy but the first step in the mental journey that you embark on after the snap second decision. InayaConnect is a conversational platform which, while retaining the anonymity of the user, tries to overcome the absence of human-like interaction. While InayaConnect will connect the user with the best suitable low-cost help, it is the onus of the user to take it from there,” he said.

Singh said that he will soon upgrade InayaConnect with a self-help chatbot. “Currently we are working on 9 million inputs to integrate 3000 to 4000 emotions and experiences. This will help in tailoring the responses and improve the chatbot tenfold. We are also trying to bring the chatbot in regional languages so that it has a grassroot reach. Meanwhile, we also are looking into partnering with more individual mental health practitioners and organisations, who provide low-cost mental health aid” he said.

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