In an effort to address the alarming rates of suicide among veterans, researchers at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (USC ICT) have developed an innovative solution — an AI-driven virtual human companion app called Battle Buddy. The app, currently in its early stages of development, aims to provide much-needed support, assessment and intervention for veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Recent reports from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that the suicide rate among veterans was 57.3% higher than non-veterans in 2020. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 1.2 million suicide attempts that same year.
David Cobbins, a project leader at USC and a U.S. Army veteran, highlights the challenges faced by veterans in accessing mental health care.
“Especially on deployments, I saw issues with mental health,” he said. “The army provides resources, but people don’t always feel comfortable talking to mental health professionals or leadership.”
One of the major obstacles in Los Angeles, home to a significant veteran population of about 242,668 last census, is access to adequate care.
“There are multiple VA hospitals, but there just aren’t enough staff to actually help the large population we have here,” Cobbins said.
The Battle Buddy app aims to bridge this gap by utilizing AI technology to provide virtual companionship, suicide prevention messaging and crisis intervention. Users can interact with a virtual human, equipped with the ability to check in, establish rapport and connect individuals to appropriate care during a crisis.
Sharon Mogzai, Associate Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC ICT, who leads the Battle Buddy project, explains the app’s impact. “This project aims to have an impact in three areas,” she said. “The first being assessment of the potential for suicidal ideation. The second is prevention of a suicidal crisis, and then, in the event of a suicidal crisis, timely and effective intervention.”
Mogzai emphasizes the importance of leveraging new technologies to reach all veterans, including those who may not access traditional VA resources. She believes that embracing innovative ways of delivering mental health care can help close the gap and save lives.
To support the development of Battle Buddy, the app recently received $1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. An early version of the prototype is currently being demonstrated, before getting user-centered feedback from veterans to fine-tune its capabilities prior to release.
“As a veteran, I hope that this tool ultimately saves lives.” Cobbins said. With Battle Buddy on the horizon, the prospect of using a smartphone app to provide life-saving support is becoming a reality.
While Battle Buddy aims to be available soon, it is important to note that immediate help is available for anyone in need. If you or someone you know requires assistance, a veteran or not, please reach out. The suicide and crisis lifeline can be reached by dialing 988.