Students use AI to support mental health, address unanswered calls for help


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Help” is a word many people have a tough time saying, or when they do, there may not be anyone to listen. Penn State students Bill Chen and Howard Hong said they have been there and are working with a team of fellow students to make sure that during a crisis, no one else feels alone.

Chen, Hong, Yunzhao Gao, Jihua Ma, Xinbing (Jack) Zhang and Yinqi (Anna) Zhang are students in the College of Engineering, College of the Liberal Arts, College of Education, and the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State. They led the development of an application called PsySpace while competing in the 2021 Nittany AI Challenge.

Hong said the app is designed to expediate the process of matching someone in distress with an active listener who can help.

“As a college student, it may be your first time away from home; you’re trying to cover tuition and wondering about future career opportunities. Adults at this age are given a lot of responsibilities, as well as choices, but don’t always have the tools to deal with an overload of stress that could lead to self-harm,” Hong said. “Many students, including myself, often find it difficult to find help while experiencing distress because of the cost, wait time and/or personability. This inspired us to create PsySpace.”

PsySpace is designed to identify mental health challenges that the user is facing when they vent their concerns to the app, either through voice or text. It will then use AI to match the user with a listener that shares common ground; give the listener insight into the user’s past and current situations, as well as recommend the most personalized recourses from the mental health content library.

“The constant stress adults experience from career, relationships, family and finances can lead to episodes of mental breakdown or more severe mental health disorders. Those stresses are timely and waiting for the time it takes to make an appointment with a mental health professional may not always be the ideal option,” Chen said. “Instead, the app can match the user with someone who can be an active listener at a critical moment.”

Chen said that under the support system of listeners the app provides, there are still problems associated with time, accessibility and efficiency. The team aims to use artificial intelligence to address these concerns while developing their minimum viable product (MVP) for the final phase of the Nittany AI Challenge. He said the MVP will include the following features:

  • Severity Level Measurement designed to identify situations that require emergency care.
  • Mental Health Challenge Identification designed to allow users to pair up with listeners within a specific area of expertise.
  • Report Generation designed to accelerate the process of recording details of a session and offer the user a long-term experience on the platform.
  • Response Suggestion built by using language models that can identify and assist with emotional labeling.

“By providing an easily accessible and immediate mental health support platform, we hope to help students increase mental health awareness and give them a place to seek support for different stresses they experience throughout their life,” Chen said. “In the future, PsySpace will strive to achieve this goal and other goals by combining innovative technical advancements and diligent research in psychology.”

The team will present the PsySpace MVP to a panel of judges during the AI for Good Expo on Sept. 9, 2021. The expo and the Nittany AI Challenge are facilitated by the Nittany AI Alliance, a unit of Penn State Outreach.


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