Since COVID-19 was declared an outbreak in March 2020, there has been a decline in the mental wellness of Canadians, according to Statistics Canada.
The City of Oshawa has noticed a need for pandemic supports for their employees, which has led to a partnership with Ontario Tech University (OT) to develop a Mental Health Chatbot.
This project is part of the TeachingCity initiative, which brings together education and research to address urban issues through innovation, collaboration, and experiential learning opportunities.
The online resource is not made for those in crisis but instead, for those who need quick emotional relief to see they aren’t alone. The chat will populate similar posts by people who are feeling the same way as the user.
The algorithm picks out certain words and displays chat boxes from people who are also seeking quick relief and since there is no expert on the other end of the screen, the city and university made it clear it should not be replaced by professional help if that is what one needs.
“Like most organizations, our employees have been going through a lot and looking for ongoing resources and supports in kind of a unique and creative way rather than accessing information and support in the traditional way that we typically do,” said Cheryl Abbot, Organizational Development Consultant for the City of Oshawa.
Abbott is the city lead who has been working closely with Ontario Tech on the project.
While the chat room was inspired by COVID-19, the city anticipates this will be a long-lasting resource and hopes that when the pandemic is over, the impact of the chat room will stick with many users.
“We’ve gotten some recognition around how important employee assistance is and providing mental health supports for employees not only in the realm of the workplace but in their personal lives as well,” said Abbott.
Oshawa is not alone in its concern with mental illness related issues on the rise.
The province has implemented a COVID-19 Action Plan for Vulnerable People to help protect those living in high-risk settings.
The rate of domestic violence also increased by 8 per cent and sexual assault calls increased by 22 per cent between March and July 2020, according to Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS).
“In emergency rooms, there’s more head trauma and fractures for kids, and it’s like oh my god, you know what happened and it ties back to mental health, there’s so many layers,” said Abbott.
The Mental Health Chatbot gives these people an anonymous platform to share their feelings, but it is not private.
The bot will flag any inappropriate language and it will be reported back to the algorithm to ensure it is a safe environment that will encourage better mental health.
“We’re actually collecting all the data into a data set that will have two purposes,” Christopher Collins, Canada Research Chair in Linguistic Information Visualization and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science at OT.
Collins is the Ontario Tech lead on this project and is responsible for creating the actual model that will be used when it becomes available to the public.
The first data set can become an artifact for the people who struggled in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) during the pandemic.
The second will draw on what others have said in the past from the database and show it to the current user.
For example. if you are feeling stressed about meeting deadlines and you enter that into the chat function, as you write, it will populate certain messages in speech bubbles that might be comforting at the time for reassurance.
“The whole idea here is peer support but without ever knowing who those peers are and without actually issuing a search, the story that you’re telling kind of becomes an implicit search,” said Collins.
The chat box in the bottom middle of the screen will be surrounded by thought bubbles: comments that appear closer to the chat area will be the most relatable to what the user has said.
Collins said he is working with partners at Ontario Shores and Ontario Tech has been helping him develop a script of what the chat box will actually say and what language should be flagged to avoid triggering and unappropriated situations.
His role is to decide where the chat bubbles appear, matching what the user has said with like-minded posts, and coding the whole thing.
Although it is unsure exactly how much this project will cost, it is estimated there will be enough funds to make the chatbot free for a year.
The project still has to undergo approval by the board of ethics as Ontario Tech and the City of Oshawa wants to make sure the users know it is not to be used in place of crisis supports.
“We’re not installing like cookies on your browser so if your family member goes and uses the same laptop after the fact, they won’t be able to see you were there previously,” said Collins.
By introducing this chatbot, a mental health community will be built without even knowing the creators or other contributors to the service.
It is intended to create mental wealth because the bot will help ease users through the pandemic and even afterwards when the long-lasting effects set in which can include anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other mental illness-related topics.
“We’re hoping that something like the chatbot will give the opportunity to get in that space and share, support, and learn on a more casual level…” said Abbott.
It is estimated that the chatbot will be a pilot at first with the City of Oshawa’s leadership team in anticipation of a roll-out coming soon.
“The functionality of it and how they are talking about laying it out I thought was really really cool, so I am interested to see how it all comes out,” said Abbott.