Virtual Interviewers Help Service Members and Veterans Open Up About PTSD

Stigma is hard on everyone it impacts, but when it keeps people away from their doctors, or keeps them silent about their concerns, it can be deadly. While organizations like ours work to fight stigma day by day, there’s no denying that it’s still pervasive — especially when it comes to talking about issues aside from anxiety and depression.

Researchers from University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University recently tackled one place where stigma can have particularly devastating consequences: among military service members with PTSD. Here, they explain the crux of the problem:

Service members are reluctant to report symptoms of combat-related conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is typified by persistent mental, behavioral, and emotional symptoms as a result of exposure to physical or psychological trauma. Not only are service members more likely to have PTSD than civilians, but also as a result of the perceived stigma surrounding the condition, they are particularly reluctant to report symptoms. The reluctance of service members in the United States Military to report PTSD symptoms is especially intensified when they are screened for mental health symptoms using the official administration of the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA) since this information becomes documented in their military health records. Indeed, there are pragmatic military career implications (such as the perception of possible future restrictions from certain job placements and from obtaining future security clearances) for having been screened positive for mental health conditions.

 
Of course, even with those risks, it’s critical that people with PTSD seek treatment. PTSD is linked with many other serious issues, including chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, social isolation, cardiovascular disease, and suicide, particularly when left untreated. So researchers set out to discover whether technology could help bridge that disclosure gap.

They introduced virtual human interviewers into the reporting process to discover whether service members would be more willing to report their PTSD symptoms when talking to a virtual human interviewer over self-reporting symptoms on the PDHA. Working with both active duty service members and veterans, they found that participants reported more symptoms of PTSD when asked by the virtual human interviewer than they did on the PDHA, or even on an anonymized version of the PDHA.

Because the interviewer had more success than even an anonymous form, the researchers believe that rapport building may be a factor — that even a virtual interviewer is better at building rapport, and getting participants to open up, than an official form. The virtual interviewer used follow-up questions, empathetic feedback and non-verbal behaviors to create a more comfortable environment for participants, and that may well have had an effect.

If that sounds a bit far fetched, watch the video above for an example of a virtual human interviewer from 2013. Virtual human interviewers are a lot more complex than your average chatbot. And because of that, they may well offer a new way to get people to open up about their mental health issues.

[Reporting Mental Health Symptoms: Breaking Down Barriers to Care with Virtual Human Interviewers]