Ryan Chiu Shares New Technology that Combats Mental Illness

“In the US, there are 44 million individuals suffering from mental illness and only 117,000 licensed psychologists. That leaves roughly 360 patients per psychologist. We believe MARCo will be able to decrease this disparity and get more individuals treated.”

 

This staggering statistic is what motivated co-founders Ryan Chiu and Jason Boyle to invent the latest technology in mental health treatment. Both Chiu and Boyle have loved ones who suffered from mental illness and came to the realization that so many other individuals suffer from the illnesses they saw firsthand. Because of that, they decided to build MARCo, the Mentally Assistive Robotic Companion.

 

MARCo is a robotic companion that is changing mental health treatment by reaching a greater number of individuals and being cost effective. Currently, MARCo’s technology aims to assist the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, and general anxiety disorder, but MARCo does not take on the responsibility of diagnosing mental illnesses. Instead, the user would tell MARCo which illness he/she currently suffers from and it would cater its treatment to the proper illness. MARCo also has the capability to treat more than one mental illness.

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This little robotic companion operates via it’s “Five Objectives of Care.” Objective 1 encompasses companionship. By learning the patients’ likes/dislikes, MARCo can actively cheer their patient up.

 

It’s second objective revolves around a commonly used practice by psychologists in mental health treatment, guided meditation. MARCo is programmed to walk users through guided meditations while simultaneously displaying soothing images and calming light displays.

 

The third objective MARCo focuses on is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This treatment takes negative thought patterns and converts them to positive ones. Co-founder Ryan Chiu gave this example, “For instance, if you were to say ‘MARCo I’m going to fail this test next week’, MARCo would try to emphatically point out that you still have time to study and help you concentrate on the task at hand.”

 

In addition to these treatments, MARCo’s fourth objective is biofeedback. The ability to record heart rate and eating/sleeping patterns helps to monitor if any deviations occur. If any deviations occur, MARCo would inquire why the user is feeling different.

 

Lastly, because MARCo is a robotic companion, the creators understood that in some instances contact emergency services as well as dependents to inform human users of the situation. It’s software picks up on keywords such as suicide, self harm, and depression. From there, it rates them on the Columbia Suicide Scale. Because of this reasoning, MARCo is not intended to replace the typical caregiver; rather, enhance and assist in the lack of time allocated to each patient.

 

When asked about this icy perception of robots, Chiu commented, “I believe this is a misconception. In the past, robots may have has this persona; but these days (especially in media such as WALL-E, Big Hero 6, etc.) robots have a more empathic personality.” As their target range is 10-30 year olds, this claim is quite valid due to them growing up with these loveable characters. “Recently, we met a mother who said that her daughter, who suffers from mental illness, only tells how she feels to her stuffed animals. Having MARCo to converse with the daughter and alert the mother in high risk situations would be a ‘much needed invention’”.

 

Since its creation, MARCo has been praised by Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, aired on NJ 101.5, and is currently working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. While these accolades are exceptional, MARCo needs funding more than ever to make their mission a reality. Check out their GoFundMe here.

 

Looking towards the future, Boyle and Chiu hope to see MARCo covered by health insurance in order to “reach a wide range of users seeking treatment in a cost effective manner.” In order to reach these goals, the team has hired interns in psychology and computer science to assist in bringing MARCo up to a production ready unit. As the team continues improving the product, they plan to add a wider range of mental illnesses.

 

The goal is simple: “wider mental health treatment for all.”