Can a machine provide reliable mental health counseling?

In Philadelphia, an interactive kiosk will screen you for various mental illnesses

Topics: Mental health, technology, counseling, , ,

Can a machine provide reliable mental health counseling? (Credit: Peshkova via Shutterstock)

When one considers the central pillars of mental healthcare, psychotherapy and psychiatry come to mind. Although the two practices might approach treatment in different ways, they overlap in that the experience of meeting with the health professional is almost as important as the treatment itself.

If that is the case, if the experience of doing therapy is as important as the therapy itself, then the idea of an interactive screening kiosk for mental health seems a little bit like a glorified WebMD. But that is exactly what the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services has installed at a local grocery story. The interactive kiosk is called “Wellness at Your Fingertips” and is the winning submission of a design competition held by the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation.

The foundation’s website has more:

Wellness at Your Fingertips is a tablet based screening tool used to identify signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions such as Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, Eating Disorders, Bi-Polar Disorder and Alcohol misuse. The integration of this tool into a retail clinic will mark the first time in the United States that a retail clinic has begun comprehensive screening for mental health conditions.

The specific tool that will be implemented is an evidence based screening tool designed by Screening for Mental Health, Inc. (SMH) of Wellesley, Massachusetts and has been used over three million times since it’s development in 1991. SMH partnered with the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) to create a version of this tool that is catered for Philadelphia residents by including local resources such as Crisis Response Centers, Inpatient and Outpatient Providers. To properly support the implementation of the screening tool and resources, SMH and DBHIDS have conducted intensive staff trainings for QCare and Shoprite personnel.



One in four Philadelphians will be somehow affected by mental illness in 2014, and the city has an impressive record when it comes to removing the stigma of treatment. This June, the city sponsored the first ever #IWillListenDay during which residents could join a citywide judgment-free discussion about mental health issues. According to its website, Philadelphia’s Office of Mental Health provides services for more than 40,000 adults and children and supports community mental health centers, crisis response centers, in-patient provider agencies and more than 30 specialized health agencies.

More than 61 million Americans suffer from a mental illness, although less than 30 percent will seek treatment. Should the supermarket kiosk succeed, it could be a good first step toward making Philadelphians aware that mental health treatment could be useful. The necessary next step, however, is getting them to take advantage of the services recommended by the kiosk’s program and to find themselves in a room with another human being.

h/t ThinkProgress

Joanna Rothkopf

Joanna Rothkopf is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sustainability. Follow @JoannaRothkopf or email jrothkopf@salon.com.

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