Virtual humans work better than current ways to identify post-traumatic stress in soldiers

October 12, 2017
US soldiers and veterans revealed significantly more post-traumatic stress symptoms to a virtual interviewer than through a standard or anonymous Post-Deployment Health Assessment survey. Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

Soldiers are more likely to open up about post-traumatic stress when interviewed by a virtual interviewer than by taking a survey, finds a study published today in open-access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI. A computer-generated 'human' interviewer combines the advantages of anonymity with social connection and rapport, which could help soldiers to reveal more about their mental health symptoms.

Soldiers who have experienced combat can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes disturbing thoughts, feelings and dreams. The stigma around problems means that troops can be reluctant to admit to symptoms or seek help. "Allowing PTSD to go untreated can potentially have disastrous consequences, including suicide attempts," says Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California.

Following a tour of duty, the US military assesses the mental health of its troops in a written called the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA), which measures PTSD symptoms. However, the results can affect a 's career prospects in the military. This means they may be reluctant to be completely honest.

Previous studies have shown that people are often more likely to provide sensitive information in anonymous surveys, as they feel safer and less exposed. However, human interviewers can build rapport with interviewees, which isn't possible in an anonymous survey. When an forms a with an interviewee, they often open up more easily.

A computer-generated 'human' interviewer could provide a solution that combines the rapport-building skills of real human interviewers with the feelings of anonymity and safety provided by anonymous surveys. Such virtual interviewers can use a variety of techniques to build rapport, including a welcoming expression and posture, and being attentive and responsive.

Lucas and her colleagues hypothesized that a virtual interviewer would help soldiers to disclose PTSD symptoms more easily. The research team tested this hypothesis in a group of soldiers following a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.

The troops underwent their official PDHA survey, and then completed an anonymous version by selecting answers on a computer. They also underwent an anonymous interview with a virtual interviewer, who built rapport before asking them questions about common post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Strikingly, the troops revealed significantly more PTSD symptoms to the virtual interviewer than in either of the surveys. The research team repeated the experiment in a larger group of soldiers and veterans, this time comparing only the anonymous PDHA survey and an anonymous interview with a virtual interviewer.

In this second experiment, soldiers and veterans with milder symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder opened up and disclosed more symptoms to the virtual interviewer compared to the anonymous PDHA survey. This suggests that virtual interviews could help to uncover PTSD symptoms that current interview techniques can't detect, and help soldiers to access much-needed treatments.

"These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for ," says Lucas. "By receiving anonymous feedback from a virtual human interviewer that they are at risk for PTSD, they could be encouraged to seek help without having their symptoms flagged on their military record."

The potential of visual computer technology to collect or impart information is enormous, and researchers are beginning to explore it for a variety of healthcare applications. For instance, in a recent article published in Frontiers in Public Health, researchers trialed an educational demonstration for drug users on tablet computers in a needle exchange clinic. After the demonstration, drug users showed increased knowledge about hepatitis C infections, HIV testing and overdose prevention.

Explore further: Predicting depression and PTSD before deployment could help soldiers cope

More information: Frontiers in Robotics and AI, DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2017.00051 , https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2017.00051/full

Related Stories

Predicting depression and PTSD before deployment could help soldiers cope

October 4, 2017
A set of validated, self-reported questions administered early in a soldier's career could predict mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after return from deployment, according ...

Letters from home may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in happily married soldiers

June 3, 2011
A new study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress finds that for active-duty male soldiers in the U.S. Army who are happily married, communicating frequently with one's spouse through letters and emails during deployment may ...

Alterations in blood-based miRNA in veterans affected with combat-related PTSD

September 4, 2017
Individuals affected with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) demonstrate changes in microRNA (miRNA) molecules associated with gene regulation. A controlled study, involving military personnel on deployment to a combat ...

Vets' readjustment issues may spur PTSD treatment

September 6, 2012
(HealthDay)—The stress of readjusting to civilian life is a major reason some U.S. soldiers seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a new study finds.

PTSD risk can be predicted by hormone levels prior to deployment, study says

March 7, 2017
Up to 20 percent of U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from trauma experienced during wartime, but new neuroscience research from The University of Texas ...

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Schizophrenia disrupts the brain's entire communication system, researchers say

October 17, 2017
Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain's entire communication system.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.