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Who do you talk to when you are feeling depressed and alone?
Would you talk to a squid?
Not a real sea creature of course, but a virtual chatbot on messaging service Telegram.
Six young Singaporeans seem to think so.
Using chatbot technology by BotDistrikt, Stubby is programmed to ask users a series of questions: This will help streamline and lead users to helplines relevant to their situation.
Users just need to launch Telegram, open a chat with Stubby the Squid @stubbythe_bot, and press ‘Start’.
From Stubby’s first question: “Are you in need of urgent care?”, users are prompted with the necessary information at a tap of a finger.
In cases where users are not in immediate danger and are seeking professional help, Stubby asks questions like, “Are you currently in school? Do you want to see a school counsellor?” It will then provide guidance on how to reach a school counsellor.
One of Project Cloud 9’s founders, 23-year-old Jenny Yang tells The Pride why Stubby takes such a methodical approach.
In 2014, Jenny began feeling sluggish and anxious. She thought she was stressed from school, but the symptoms persisted for two years before she was properly diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Yet even after her diagnosis, she and her family didn’t know where to start to look for help.
She says: “My family and I were trying to figure things out in the dark. It was not an easy path to find the right doctors for me — and I tried just about everything.”
She visited school counsellors, public healthcare centres, private healthcare centres, family service centres, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners — every option she could think of.
It was a frustrating and worrying experience. She explains, “It’s very difficult for someone who’s suffering to get the help they need.”
Jenny and the other founders of Project Cloud 9 met in 2019 at the Youth Action Challenge 2019.
The team includes Loh An Lin, 26, Chow Si Qing, 25, Gordon Quek, 25, You Jing, 23, and Carrie Tan, 19.
During the 6-month-long challenge, the team developed and pitched their idea of improving help-seeking behaviour among youth suffering from mental health issues. The team won a $30,000 grant from the National Youth Council, and Project Cloud 9 was born.
Does a Telegram squid bot really work?
So why a chatbot?
Carrie explains: “Some of my friends are too scared to talk to their parents about their mental health struggles because they’re worried about what their parents might say or how they’d react.”
The team hopes that by chatting with the non-intimidating Stubby on Telegram, which allows more discreet interactions, those facing mental wellness challenges would be more likely to seek help early and find the treatment that works for them.
Stubby even has its own Instagram account!
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At the end of the day, through Stubby, Project Cloud 9 aims to streamline the process of seeking help for mental health issues in Singapore.
A person looking for help may find a multitude of links and helplines from a Google search, which may be overwhelming for a person in distress, says Gordon.
Stubby aims to simplify this process by being “a consolidated place where youths can seek help,” he explains.
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Apart from being a one-stop platform to relevant organisations, Stubby guides users through their journey of seeking help. For example, while elaborating on the options available, Stubby explains the differences between counselling and therapy and directs users to relevant resources depending on their age, whether they have parental consent or not, and what kind of symptoms they’re experiencing.
For instance, if a user is in primary school, Stubby recommends calling the Tinkle Friend helpline. If they’re older youths, then it recommends the Singapore Association for Mental Health or National Care Hotline instead.
Since Stubby was officially launched in June 2021, more than 1,000 users have chatted with Stubby, and more than a quarter of them have clicked on the resources recommended by Stubby.
Creating communal support
Another way that Project Cloud 9 encourages help-seeking behaviour is by its Share Your Stories initiative.
On the website, anyone may share their struggle with mental health, and anyone may read about these struggles.
Gordon says: “We aim to show that these experiences are not rare or isolated — they’re common.”
“Some people may feel uncomfortable or unsafe to share their stories, and that can lead to many stories about mental health being suppressed.”
The aim of the sharing initiative is to provide a safe and accessible space where people may express their challenges with mental health.
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When others struggling with similar mental health issues read these stories, it can help them feel less alone and perhaps give them courage to seek the help they need.
Carrie says: “I’ve had friends tell me that reading our stories was a very cathartic and comforting experience. They see that they’re not alone in their feelings. Other people have felt similar things and they resonate with them.”
Some friends even take screenshots of certain paragraphs and tell Carrie, “It feels like I wrote that.”
Set up three months ago, Share Your Stories has received more than 70 stories about personal struggles with mental health and has hit more than 2,000 views. The team hopes to receive 100 stories by the end of February.
Taking the next step
“These stories identify loopholes and inadequacies in the system,” Gordon says.
In April, Project Cloud 9 plans to consolidate any shortcomings in the healthcare system based on the experiences shared in the stories.
The team hopes to be able to present this report to those passionate about mental health, such as changemakers, Members of Parliament as well as MOH policymakers to improve services and policies regarding mental health in Singapore.
“We feel that more action needs to be done towards concrete change. For example, making help-seeking easier, increasing the ways to seek help, and having better mental health policies. We think these aren’t talked about as much, so our project focuses on that,” Carrie says.
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“It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference. It could be starting a conversation with a friend, deciding to open up to someone, or taking the first step in receiving the treatment you need,” adds Jenny.
Talk to a friend about it. Share your story online and read someone else’s. Or if you’re too shy to do that, you might even want to consider talking to a squid!