A friendly app for challenging times

Researchers are using artificial intelligence to help people access vital mental health resources.

Donna Burnett is a Senior Manager in the La Trobe Business School and part of a team of researchers within the Centre for Data Analytics and Cognition (CDAC). The team has been developing ‘Bunji’, a chatbot that aims to help people experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

‘We used Bunji as a name because in the Aboriginal dialect it means a 'critical friend'," explaining Donna, noting it was important that the app offer a friend ‘who was not going to be judgmental.

Prabod Rathnayaka is a PhD candidate at CDAC. He helped develop Bunji’s artificial intelligence technology (such as human-centric AI algorithms, and natural language understanding models) to support the app’s use of behavioural activation therapy. This form of therapy aims to encourage people to engage in activities connected with pleasure or positivity, and engage in fewer activities that tend to maintain or increase depression.

Donna emphasises that Bunji does not replace existing healthcare services, but aims to be a companion that provides conversational support. It helps break the vicious cycle of physical inactivity with features like reminders for activities and mood tracking. While a counsellor might ask a patient to do these tasks manually, Bunji uses technology to help simplify some of these processes.

The app currently has around 300 users, with most in Australia but some coming from as far afield as Kenya, Sri Lanka and the United States.

One of the lead researchers, Professor of Clinical Nursing, Richard Gray, has shared the development of Bunji with his colleagues. This group of clinical specialists has provided Prabod and the technical team with information that ensures Bunji asks a user the same questions a counsellor would try to ask at every appointment, while also ensuring the user remains anonymous and protected.

A La Trobe partnership with St John Ambulance has added to what the app can offer users. As Donna exaplins, St John Ambulance "feel that the app has a lot of beneficial points they would like to see enhanced, and things they would like to add in so that the app can become a usable tool within both the medical field and the broader community."

The CDAC team are also making additional plans to expand the app’s usefulness to users.

"When a user is scheduling an activity like a run, for example, users might want that function to incorporate with Google Maps and show where the great running tracks are nearby," Donna says. "It becomes more of a personal experience for the end user."

  • Find out more about the Centre for Data Analytics and Cognition here.
  • Find out more about Bunjil here.