UP launches counselling chatbot to provide students with mental health care

By IOL Reporter Time of article published Apr 1, 2021

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The University of Pretoria (UP) has launched a Student Counselling Unit chatbot aimed at assisting students providing primary mental healthcare for students to supplement traditional one-on-one counselling services.

The Student Counselling Unit-Bot (SCU-B) initiative is the first of its kind.

The university said the initiative will enable students to build personalised toolkits that contain self-help content while pursuing their academic goals. The lockdown has created a stressful environment for many including students.

Dr Linda Blokland, acting head of department at the Student Counselling Unit said the initial development revolves around three main branches: mood, stress and lifestyle.

“Students can access the chatbot through the student portal on their electronic devices, and register on the bot using their student credentials. They can also use the chatbot anonymously. Either way, their use will be confidential and their identities will always be protected. If they choose to use their student credentials, they can save material to a toolkit and return at any stage to review what they have saved,” said Blokland.

According to Dr Blokland, the chatbot uses artificial intelligence to develop and grow. She adds that the SCU-B initiative will be expanded and become more responsive the more it is used.

“The team will be adding branches and content regularly while in consultation with other units of the Department of Student Affairs and other departments of the University.”

The university said not only does this initiative expand upon the one-on-one counselling process, it also gives the unit’s professional psychologists more time to focus on developing other resources of a preventative nature, such podcasts, video material and online workshops.

Blokland said there is a need for initiatives like the SCU-B. “The SCU-B can use interventions to promote personal strengths and resilience rather than simply focus on mental illness. The current generation of students are particularly drawn to electronic information and the chatbot is the ideal platform for this.”

The chatbot was established with the assistance from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Dr Thashlin Govender, programme director at the Michael & Susan Dell, said students needed support in a variety of areas to succeed at university.

“The pandemic brought not only an increased need for student support services, but a need for students to be able to access helpful tools in a private, virtual setting. This new virtual tool will allow more students to prioritise their well-being throughout their university journey,” said Govender.

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