The Aroha chatbot was designed to help young New Zealanders during COVID-19. It’s part of the growing HABITs ecosystem of digital self-help tools.
The Aroha Chatbot – “Aroha” – is a co-designed evidence-based technology solution developed in a university-business collaboration to help young New Zealanders cope with stress and anxiety amid and emerging from COVID-19.
Created by researchers at the University of Auckland who work within A Better Start E Tipu E Rea National Science Challenge, Aroha provides youth-appropriate ideas of ways to manage the challenges of COVID-19. Using a Chatbot was important because the researchers wanted to keep young people engaged. They knew this involved listening to feedback that wold allow them to provide support and point people in the right places for advice.
Dr Sarah Hetrick, Associate Professor in Youth Mental Health at the University of Auckland was one of the founders of Aroha. She explains, “It’s a noisy space out there and we wanted young people to feel heard.”
Aroha is being developed within a bi-cultural framework and using co-design. “Ensuring that rangatahi can access specific and culturally applicable activities is important,” says lead Māori researcher Tania Cargo, “given we know that a strong cultural identity supports wellbeing.”
It runs on Facebook Messenger and has in-built feedback mechanisms designed to be agile enough to allow rapid deployment of updates to content and functionality. This enables Sarah and her team to move especially quickly in responding to changing needs of end-users.
Aroha is part of a suite of online self-help tools supported by the Ministry of Health, including mental health knowledge site, The Lowdown, and online wellness toolkit, Melon Health. Robyn Shearer, Deputy-Director General Mental Health and Addiction, explains the importance of e-therapy tools that “young people to see and hear the message repeatedly that it is ok to not be ok,” and to ensure mental wellbeing services are available free-of-charge, on a confidential basis.
Aroha was initially a response to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and has evolved as a response to increased rates of mental health issues resulting from isolation and unemployment. A recent Youthline report shows young New Zealanders were more isolated and anxious than ever, suggesting this is likely to increase in the time to come.
Sarah describes that Aroha’s has a broader ecosystem focus, and that it “belongs to a larger array of youth mental health tools… These are supported by the HABITs project – short for Health Advances through Behavioural Interventions and funded by A Better Start E Tipu E Rea Science Challenge and CureKids. We want to enable young New Zealanders with a range of tools on-hand to help themselves and take leadership in their own wellbeing, to build resilience that is holistic”.
Aroha started life a long time before COVID-19 as Headstrong, a Chatbot part of the HABITs ecosystem, which was designed in collaboration with Rush Digital who supported the digital requirements. This collaboration resulted in development of a chatbot architecture to support resilience using relatable online personas. Once developed, this architecture allowed the team to create a further Chatbot for university students, and as the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Zealand the team could see the potential to realise the possibility of this agile tech to quickly create a tool to support young people through COVID-19.
Aroha’s aesthetic was designed by New Zealand illustrators Watermark Creative.
Monitoring usage of the tool has also enabled Sarah and her team to understand her audience better and remain agile. Sarah explains that agility is key to author new content to address the concerns and struggles young people share. From her clinical psychology background, it also suits her just fine to not get involved with coding. “I can go into the CMS system and just tweak things,” she says.
Early usage stats from when Aroha first went live saw 392 register, 127 of whom were in target age range. Most were female and 47% NZ European (the remaining Māori, Pacific, Asian and other).
On average, these users engaged for an average of 11 minutes at a time, with 70% receiving all of the target psychoeducation information.
Focus groups have been a key method for the HABITs team in getting feedback. Feedback from focus groups with users has highlighted the value of the “use of emojis and gifs rather than just plain text”, that it “felt like you were actually having a casual conversation with someone else rather than being lectured to”. Other feedback showed appreciation of “relatable words like “heaps” and “whānau”, and shown that it is useful to have “just…someone to talk to, or a distraction from other things.”
Not all the feedback has been positive, but Sarah says this has “made us aware of the issues young people are facing, and young people have given us direction in terms of what new content and functionality is needed”.
These positive response to Aroha suggests they should be confirm the importance of technology being tailor-made, to meet the needs of its users.
Aroha is also helping New Zealand’s e-therapy leadership overseas. The HABITs project is currently being adapted for the UK, led by Nottingham University, with the SPARX program.
To find out more about Aroha and chat with her yourself, visit http://tiny.cc/aroha.
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