A Conversational Artificial Intelligence Agent for a Mental Health Care App: Evaluation Study of Its Participatory Design

JMIR Form Res. 2021 Dec 1;5(12):e30053. doi: 10.2196/30053.


BACKGROUND: Mobile apps for mental health are available on the market. Although they seem to be promising for improving the accessibility of mental health care, little is known about their acceptance, design methodology, evaluation, and integration into psychotherapy protocols. This makes it difficult for health care professionals to judge whether these apps may help them and their patients.

OBJECTIVE: Our aim is to describe and evaluate a protocol for the participatory design of mobile apps for mental health. In this study, participants and psychotherapists are engaged in the early phases of the design and development of the app empowered by conversational artificial intelligence (AI). The app supports interventions for stress management training based on cognitive behavioral theory.

METHODS: A total of 21 participants aged 33-61 years with mild to moderate levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (assessed by administering the Italian versions of the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised, Occupational Stress Indicator, and Perceived Stress Scale) were assigned randomly to 2 groups, A and B. Both groups received stress management training sessions along with cognitive behavioral treatment, but only participants assigned to group A received support through a mobile personal health care agent, designed for mental care and empowered by AI techniques. Psychopathological outcomes were assessed at baseline (T1), after 8 weeks of treatment (T2), and 3 months after treatment (T3). Focus groups with psychotherapists who administered the therapy were held after treatment to collect their impressions and suggestions.

RESULTS: Although the intergroup statistical analysis showed that group B participants could rely on better coping strategies, group A participants reported significant improvements in obsessivity and compulsivity and positive distress symptom assessment. The psychotherapists’ acceptance of the protocol was good. In particular, they were in favor of integrating an AI-based mental health app into their practice because they could appreciate the increased engagement of patients in pursuing their therapy goals.

CONCLUSIONS: The integration into practice of an AI-based mobile app for mental health was shown to be acceptable to both mental health professionals and users. Although it was not possible in this experiment to show that the integration of AI-based conversational technologies into traditional remote psychotherapy significantly decreased the participants’ levels of stress and anxiety, the experimental results showed significant trends of reduction of symptoms in group A and their persistence over time. The mental health professionals involved in the experiment reported interest in, and acceptance of, the proposed technology as a promising tool to be included in a blended model of psychotherapy.

PMID:34855607 | DOI:10.2196/30053

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