Chatbots for Mental Health Support: Exploring the Impact of Emohaa on Reducing Mental Distress in China

21 Sep 2022  ·  Sahand Sabour, Wen Zhang, Xiyao Xiao, Yuwei Zhang, Yinhe Zheng, Jiaxin Wen, Jialu Zhao, Minlie Huang ·

The growing demand for mental health support has highlighted the importance of conversational agents as human supporters worldwide and in China. These agents could increase availability and reduce the relative costs of mental health support. The provided support can be divided into two main types: cognitive and emotional support. Existing work on this topic mainly focuses on constructing agents that adopt Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles. Such agents operate based on pre-defined templates and exercises to provide cognitive support. However, research on emotional support using such agents is limited. In addition, most of the constructed agents operate in English, highlighting the importance of conducting such studies in China. In this study, we analyze the effectiveness of Emohaa in reducing symptoms of mental distress. Emohaa is a conversational agent that provides cognitive support through CBT-based exercises and guided conversations. It also emotionally supports users by enabling them to vent their desired emotional problems. The study included 134 participants, split into three groups: Emohaa (CBT-based), Emohaa (Full), and control. Experimental results demonstrated that compared to the control group, participants who used Emohaa experienced considerably more significant improvements in symptoms of mental distress. We also found that adding the emotional support agent had a complementary effect on such improvements, mainly depression and insomnia. Based on the obtained results and participants' satisfaction with the platform, we concluded that Emohaa is a practical and effective tool for reducing mental distress.

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