Creating safe spaces for youth, by youth
In Nepal, a group of adolescents is working to design an innovative mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) chatbot to help their peers more easily and effectively access information and support services
Kathmandu, Nepal: “It’s hard for young people to talk about mental health struggles or ask for help. And it’s gotten worse after COVID-19. I’ve seen so many people I know suffering silently.”
That is 17-year-old Sumitra from Kathmandu, Nepal, referring to the prevalence of mental health problems among children and adolescents like her across the country – and the stigma, lack of awareness and other difficulties surrounding the issue.
Sumitra, a student of management, says that many young people in Nepal don’t have supportive environments at home or their communities to express themselves freely. “And mental health services are also very limited and hard to access for most,” she adds.
It is in an effort to find ways to address these challenges and needs that Sumitra has recently been working with a group of 10 other adolescents under an initiative being led by UNICEF in partnership with CWIN and the Kanti Children’s Hospital. These young people have been tasked the responsibility of designing a mental health chatbot targeted at youth.
The chatbot, which will be accessible via mobile phones, seeks to assess the needs of users and provide information on coping strategies and stress management – as well as referring them to a UNICEF-supported tele-mental health OPD service located at the Kanti Children’s Hospital in cases where direct contact with a counsellor is necessary.
The chatbot is therefore conceived as an interface between people and counsellors, helping to guide young users to the appropriate information or service as per the requirements of their case.
Recognizing that this could not be effective without the participation and meaningful engagement of the target audience – namely, children and adolescents themselves – UNICEF and partners had initiated the formation of the young designers’ club, so that their insights and inputs could inform the process from the get-go.
Across three intensive sessions, and under the guidance of mental health experts, the club has been working on identifying six key themes most relevant to the mental health of young people, and developing the respective flow of questions and answers within the chatbot.
For Sumitra, being part of the club has been very exciting.
“I think the most encouraging realization I have had through the process is that yes, it can be possible to help people through these new, innovative tools,” she says.
This is echoed by 16-year-old Diwash, a civil engineering student and another of the club members. Diwash talks about how much time children and adolescents already spend online, but how difficult it can be to navigate the large volume of content to find the right information on mental health.
“The chatbot would bring everything in one place in a systematic way for users, whether it’s young people themselves, or loved ones or caregivers who are looking for ways to help young people going through a difficult time,” he says.
"The digital route would also offer anonymity for those who aren’t ready to reveal to others around them how they feel,” Diwash adds. “It would be a safe space for them to explore and learn.”
Diwash, who says he had struggled with his own mental health not too long ago, says that as happy as he has been to be able to contribute to the development of the chatbot, the sessions have also helped him personally. He refers to the eye-opening impact of hearing diverse points-of-views during the various exercises in the sessions and discussions about the language and tone of the chatbot, the potential biases or misinterpretations that might affect the users’ journey, among other areas.
“I’ve also learned a lot about interpersonal skills, about being an active and positive listening so as to respond better to someone who is reaching out,” he says.
Sumitra, too, says has come across a lot of practical tips during the sessions that she can use in her own life, particularly to do with stress management.
Both are now keen to see the chatbot materialize and evolve, and to witness the expansion of mental health support for young people. “It feels great to be representing youth on such an important issue,” Sumitra says.
“If just one person can be helped because of me, that is a proud moment,” Diwash adds.