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U of T launches IBM-powered virtual assistant to help students access mental health supports

Whether it’s stress, feelings of loneliness or any other kind of mental health issue, the Navi virtual chat assistant helps students find support by directing them to relevant mental health services (photo by Johnny Guatto)

From one-on-one counselling and group psychotherapy to conflict resolution, spiritual well-being and supports for victims of sexual violence, the University of Toronto offers a vast array of mental health supports for students.

But it can be challenging to identify the best source of support during a time of distress.

That’s why U of T is introducing Navi – short for “navigator” – an easy-to-use virtual chat assistant that can help students find appropriate mental health supports whenever they need them. The service will be available to all students at the university later this month.

Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, said the service was developed in response to student feedback that highlighted the need for a more streamlined way to find the many mental health resources and supports on and off campus.

“This tool is one of many outcomes from the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health,” Welsh said. “U of T students told us that they wanted a simpler way to access mental health information and services and Navi is an important component of that.

“We want members of our university community to know that support is always close at hand. With this tool, finding the appropriate resource is fast, user-friendly and completely anonymous.”

Navi was developed using IBM’s Watson, a computing system that can respond to queries in natural language. The service is highly responsive and has been meticulously tested on more than one hundred undergraduate and graduate students.

Using Navi is simple: All users have to do is click the chat button and tell Navi what they need help with. Whether it’s stress, financial distress, feelings of loneliness, struggles with addiction or any other kind of problem, Navi helps students find assistance by searching for and providing them with relevant contact information.

Navi is anonymous and doesn’t require students to log in or share any personal data. That means it can also be utilized by family members, friends, faculty, staff and administrators who are looking for resources to share with students.

The service, which does not provide medical advice, counselling or diagnoses, will receive ongoing updates. That includes adding new topics such as managing the transition to university life, navigating personal relationships and meeting new people.

“We’re very pleased to partner with IBM and make use of their Watson technology to help deliver this important tool to our students,” said Bo Wandschneider, U of T’s chief information officer.

He added that he saw a demo of work IBM was doing on mental health using this technology and immediately saw the potential for it to help the U of T community with wayfinding.

“We’re excited to be rolling out a virtual agent that supports all the great resources at U of T.”

 

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