#Here4U Military Edition: Can AI help reduce mental health stigma for the military?

Researchers at Queen’s University are teaming up with IBM Canada Ltd. to develop an instant messaging smartphone application that will connect members of the military, Veterans and their family members to counselling options and resources to combat mental health disorders.

Members of the Military are at greater risk for mental health conditions. A 2013 report by Statistics Canada revealed that nearly one in six full-time Regular Force members of the Canadian Armed Forces reported at least one symptom related to major depressive episodes, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol or substance abuse. The prevalence of depression has remained unchanged, while the prevalence of PTSD, stress disorder and panic disorder have increased.

The research project will apply artificial intelligence to an advanced, unnamed chatbot that will be able to detect and identify mental health concerns among the military community and direct them to proper resources through text/chat conversation. Canadian Forces members and Veterans will be able to engage in a secure, private and anonymous interaction to attain timely and appropriate advice that is reliable and evidence-based.

Leading the project is Dr. Heather Stuart, a professor at Queen’s University’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the Faculty of Health Sciences. Stuart, who is a social-epidemiologist specializing in psychiatric epidemiology and mental health services research, is also the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair.

Members of the Canadian military and their family are particularly at risk when it comes to experiencing mental health issues and are less likely to seek solutions for a variety of reasons.

“People in the military move around a lot and are subjected to a lot of different stresses,” says Prof. Stuart. “They may be posted in areas far away from urban centres and support systems. They may be afraid that by coming forward it will hurt their careers or impact their family and friends. Maybe they can’t afford to wait on a long waiting list to receive help.”

“We can provide a one-stop shop for responsible and evidence-based solutions and resources.”

Stuart is joined by a large multidisciplinary team which includes SOSCIP post-doctoral fellows, Linna Tam-Seto and Valerie Wood, a team of computer scientists and machine learning experts at Queen’s Centre for Advanced Computing (CAC), Don Aldridge, Ken Edgecombe, Shadi Khalifa and Amal Khalil, and a dedicated team from IBM Canada Ltd., which includes cognitive architect Jennifer Nolan and Colleen McDowell, a program manager for IBM’s #Here4U Mental Health program.

Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon, Commander Joint Task Force – Iraq, and Chief Warrant Officer John Short, Task Force Chief Warrant Officer, salute during the playing of O Canada at the Remembrance Day parade during Operation IMPACT on November 11, 2015 in Kuwait.
Photo: OP Impact, DND

Part of the motivation behind the project is tackling the stigma that members of the military face due to the nature of their careers.

“Stigma is a major reason why we’re looking specifically at the military population,” explains Wood. “There is a real concern amongst members and part of what is driving stigma are the potential negative career and social implications that come with presenting symptoms and having a diagnosis.”

One of the challenges in designing the application is training the chatbot to understand the military’s unique vernacular. The team is conducting interviews and focus groups with members of the military, Veterans, adult family members, as well as military and mental health organizations to gain an enhanced understanding of the language military members use to express their mental wellbeing.

The chatbot will be equipped with IBM Watson natural language processing to pick up sentiment, analytics, tone and conversation. The CAC team, working closely with Stuart’s team, will train the chatbot on key symptoms and the appropriate language to look for in identifying mental health conditions such as PTSD – from lack of sleep and alcohol or drug abuse and other red flag symptoms.

“We take the data provided by Dr. Stuart’s team and train the chatbot to speak the same language and understand what resources it should point to based on that interaction with the user,” says Ken Edgecombe, director for the Cognitive Development Hub at the CAC.

Understanding the various scenarios, intents and contexts that a conversation around mental health could be played out will be key to the CAC team, given the many ways an individual might express symptoms such as fatigue, lack of sleep or depression. According to IBM’s Jennifer Nolan: “We need to develop and document the different intents that a chatbot can pick up from a person and map out their different responses. Those responses need to be validated with mental health professionals so we’re on the right track. Once you have the training variations in place with the virtual assistant or chatbot, you have to modify conversations to make sure we’re training it on the right intents.

“It’s very much an iterative process and we’re using the AI to understand what users are saying and training the chatbot on dozens of ways of feeling stress so that they can detect a person is stressed even if they don’t fully express it,” she explained.

It is a unique project that has united expertise from academia and industry, crossing over multiple disciplines from computer science to the social sciences.

“One of the things I find amazing about this project is that so many want to be part of this. We all know someone who has been affected by mental health issues”

“It’s motivational for everyone here who is working on it and they can see how valuable the application is and how quickly it alters work in the areas we are familiar with, which is the educational system,” says Edgecombe.

IBM’s Here4U program was initially conceived as a result of an open call among the IBM Ltd. global community to select innovative research projects to support. More than 2000 projects were pitched worldwide with IBM Canada’s Here4U program awarded as the top one out of the final 50. The team is already looking at other ways that the tool could be customized to support mental wellness among other specific groups, such as company employees or university students.

The Here4U Military Edition was a specific project selected under the Advanced Analytics Initiative, a $12M partnership between IBM Canada Ltd., the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) and Babcock Canada Inc. to fund cutting-edge research that applies data science approaches to health solutions for Canadian military personnel, Veterans and their families. You can read more here.   MITACS also provides some match funding for this initiative.


The Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) is an innovative organization that engages existing academic research resources and facilitates the development of new research, research capacity and effective knowledge translation. With a network of academic researchers from across Canada, it serves as a focal point for 43 Canadian universities who have agreed to work together in addressing the health research requirements of the Canadian military, Veterans and their families.