Riley the chatbot trains volunteers to respond to LGBTQ youth in crisis

The pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles for many and for vulnerable communities, such as LGBTQ youth, lockdown has taken away valuable social connections such as time with friends and supportive adults.

The Trevor Project, the largest LGBTQ crisis intervention nonprofit in the country, reports that the demand for support has been double pre-Covid numbers at times. From August 2019 to July 2020, the group received more than 150,000 new calls, texts, and messages.

To keep up with the needs of the community, The Trevor Project has had to rapidly expand its team of counselors who respond to these calls and messages through its online digital chat support services, TrevorChat and TrevorText. The counselors require intensive training in how to deal with sensitive issues before they are deployed to respond.

During training, counselors learn how to conduct specific counseling methods: ask open-ended questions, deal with the person’s feelings, and validate their experiences.

Training is a necessary step that prepares volunteers by educating them about gender and sexuality issues, bullying and self-harm, clinical suicide risk assessments, and communication techniques. Normally, human staff members will go through the transcripts and assess the responses of the trainees, pointing out areas where they can improve. To speed up and facilitate the training period, the organization has partnered with Google.org to develop a “crisis contact simulator” named Riley to assist with the training’s role-playing component.

Previously, other staff members would play the roles of at-risk youth, but Riley emulates youth language in a more genuine way. The AI bot learns from data such as transcripts from past human versions of the role-play as well as a paragraph that details the most salient emotional and biographical details of Riley’s story: a genderqueer youth from North Carolina whose coming out to friends didn’t go well, and who is now experiencing anxiety about coming out to family members.

Riley was created to help Trevor reach its goal of tripling its volunteer and counselor force by the end of the year. The bot quickly prepares eligible staff by working with more trainees at a time and being conveniently available for those who have signed up to work nightshifts or on weekends.

Individuals call Trevor for a whole host of reasons. Some young people call when they are seriously considering suicide, while others reach out because they are facing violence or are even just having a bad day. For Trevor, no crisis is too big or too small, but that means that their team must be ready to respond to every situation.

In the future, Trevor hopes to develop new bots that simulate more characters with distinct issues and backgrounds that can make the training more dynamic. Jen Carter, head of tech and volunteering at Google.org hopes that bots like Riley can expand to help other charitable organizations with their internal work and development as well.

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