Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45 and U.S. veterans are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other people. Amid this backdrop, many groups are working the help veterans heal and find help when in crisis. On Veteran Suicide Awareness Day, NewsNation’s special coverage is aimed at elevating the voices of veterans, their loved ones and caregivers fighting on the frontlines at home.
Researchers at the University of Southern California are working on a mobile app called “Battle Buddy” that could deliver help directly to the veteran’s phone.
The app — currently under development — is patterned off of the military’s practice of assigning partners for support both in combat and outside of it.
If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 988, and press 1 for veterans. People are available to talk to 24/7.
For more information on resources available to veterans and the groups that participated in NewsNation’s coverage, click here.
“Recognizing the barriers and stigma often associated with seeking mental health support, we envisioned a compassionate and discreet virtual assistant that could bridge this gap, providing immediate assistance and guidance to veterans in crisis,” said Sharon Morzgai, Battle Buddy’s project leader.
Battle Buddy features a virtual concierge whose job it is to help a veteran take care of their mental health.
Veterans can interact with the concierge as part of a “daily check-in.” Using AI, the virtual avatar asks the user questions like how they are feeling today and helps them learn coping mechanisms and how to check in on themselves.
The app is also designed to be able to leverage data from external devices, like sleep sensors or exercise trackers, to help analyze a veteran’s progress.
As part of the interaction with the concierge, the app may deploy other smartphone technology to help soothe the user. For instance, it can queue up music, an e-book or chart a path for the user to walk on.
You can watch a demonstration of what the app’s user interface looks like below:
The app can also help users develop a “safety plan” where they are able to quickly access their coping skills and in an emergency be connected with emergency services.
Researchers are developing the app at the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC, sponsored by the U.S. Army. They hope to begin user testing Battle Buddy this winter.
While the AI-powered tool can make it easier to access help, Morzgai emphasized Battle Buddy is not intended to replace all therapeutic needs.
“Battle Buddy cannot facilitate physical, in-person touch. Therefore, tactile gestures such as a hug or the squeeze of the hand, which can offer solace during moments of profound distress, are not possible with our current system,” she said.
Morzgai said future AI technology may allow them to create more realistic virtual experiences in the future.
She sees the app playing an important role once it’s in the hands of the veterans community.
“Collaboration with Veteran service organizations, community centers, and non-profits will be vital to drive app uptake, especially among those not currently connected to the VA, such as rural and frontier vets, and vets living overseas,” she said.