University of Pretoria: UP launches SCU-B student counselling chatbot to boost student well-being

The Student Counselling Unit at the University of Pretoria (UP) has designed a first-of-its-kind counselling chatbot as part of the Student Counselling Unit-Bot (SCU-B) initiative.

The SCU-B (“Scooby”) initiative aims to provide a primary mental healthcare resource for students to supplement traditional one-on-one counselling services, in a new virtual setting. The initiative also enables students to build personalised toolkits that contain self-help content while pursuing their academic goals, often away from home and in what is experienced as a stressful environment for many, especially during lockdown.

“The initial development revolves around three main branches: mood, stress and lifestyle,” says Dr Linda Blokland, Acting Head of Department: Student Counselling Unit. “Students can access the chatbot through the student portal on their electronic devices, and register the bot using their student credentials. They can also use the chatbot anonymously. Either way, their use will be confidential and their identities will always be protected. If they choose to use their student credentials, they can save material to a toolkit and return at any stage to review what they have saved.”

According to Dr Blokland, the chatbot uses artificial intelligence to develop and grow. She adds that the SCU-B initiative will be expanded and become more responsive the more it is used. “The team will be adding branches and content regularly while in consultation with other units of the Department of Student Affairs and other departments of the University.”

Not only does this initiative expand upon the one-on-one counselling process, it also gives the unit’s professional psychologists more time to focus on developing other resources of a preventative nature, such podcasts, video material and online workshops.

Dr Blokland says there is a need for initiatives like the SCU-B. “In this design of healthcare delivery, preventative interventions are very important to manage well-being. The SCU-B can use these interventions to promote personal strengths and resilience rather than simply focus on mental illness. The current generation of students are particularly drawn to electronic information and the chatbot is the ideal platform for this.”

The chatbot was made possible through support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The Dell Foundation supported the SCU-B to assist students during the pandemic, which has brought with it additional stress for many. “Students need support in a variety of areas to succeed at university – and that includes counselling services,” said Dr Thashlin Govender, programme director at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “The pandemic brought not only an increased need for student support services, but a need for students to be able to access helpful tools in a private, virtual setting. This new virtual tool will allow more students to prioritise their well-being throughout their university journey.”

Dr Blokland says the unit encourages students to use the chatbot and provide feedback as an important way for them to further develop and improve the resource.