UJ chatbot offers mental health support for children and youth


Applying artificial intelligence to mental healthcare could expand access and reduce costs. While use of personal computing technologies has dramatically shifted the landscape in which children and youth connect with one another and appears to have some detriments to mental health, the same technologies also offer several opportunities for the enhancement of mental health and the treatment of mental illness.


The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) facilitated the first webinar series discussing mental health and the intersection of the human and technology interface to cope with depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and stress.

Hosted on Thursday, 24 February 2022, the webinar themed ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Mental Health’ explored the tapestry of mental health challenges in children and youth using various software interventions, including chatbots.


“We need to shift away from a medical & psychiatric focus to an environmental and systematic perspective if we really want to make a difference,” said the first speaker, UJ’s Prof Jace Pillay, South African Research Chair in Education and Care in Childhood.

“We have developed a child mental profiling system tool (ChiMep), which presents us with early detection information of mental problems which can be accessed as raw data that as researchers we can generate automatically and analyze.”

Prof Pillay discussed the challenges faced by children with mental health. He also outlined the 4IR application tool benefits of the real-time web -based report to consider appropriate responses that university educators can use to navigate complex student scenarios, and support students and learners with mental health challenges, so they can succeed with their studies.

Recent research has reflected the virtual trend as well: A framing research study found that computerized conversational agents, also known as Chatbots are one form of software interventions that have seen increased application in tackling the challenges associated with accessing traditional mental health support publicly and privately for assessments, not for diagnosis.

Dr Love Idahosa, UJ’s Senior Researcher: Knowledge Management and Digitalisation Strategist discussed the need to establish digital applications in mental health delving into examples of an application housed at UJ called Bot-Impilo: A chatbot for mental health support in South African vernacular offered in three primary languages including Isizulu, Afrikaans and English. It is available on social media platforms.

Lesego Kgatla, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Africa (UNISA), gave an overview of young people who use social media applications to cope with depression. Kgatla alluded that as we reflect on future research directions, the near ubiquitous social media use also yields new opportunities to study the onset and manifestation of mental health warning sign and illness severity earlier than traditional clinical assessments.

The monthly webinar series will focus on different experiences of mental health including Academic, Student, Professional and Technical Staff, and Research.


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