The past year saw an increase in Google searches about mental health and emotional wellbeing. In response, the Arabic version of Google Assistant has launched a new service that will respond to queries about emotional wellbeing and coping mechanisms.
Google has announced that it is working with UAE-based mental health organisation Safe Space and its network of licensed therapists to draft a series of coping mechanisms on which Google Assistant will base its answers.
Ahram Online spoke with Salma El Shahed , Communication and Public Affairs manager at Google and Yasmin A. Razek, MA, RP, Registered Psychotherapist, Marriage & Family Therapist, to shed light on the new programme.
AO: Can you explain to the reader the idea behind the new Google Assistant feature?
Salma El Shahed: If anyone tells the Arabic Assistant, which understands Egyptian Arabic, that they’re sad, lonely, scared, or angry, they will hear responses based on coping mechanisms drafted by licensed therapists.
AO: In light of these challenging times, how important was the introduction of the new feature to Arabic-speaking societies?
S SH: Pretty important! The fact is, there is a growing interest in emotional wellbeing, and especially in our part of the world. Mental health research output in the Arab world has increased by almost 160 percent in the past 10 years, in comparison to 57 percent for the rest of the world. (Frontiers, 2020). We hope these new responses on the Assistant provide people valuable and helpful information.
AO: How will the interface be simplified to ensure speakers of different Arabic dialects have equal access?
S SH: The good thing about the Arabic version of the Google Assistant is that it understands all Arabic dialects. The interface of the Assistant is pretty simple, simply say “Ok Google” and ask your question. One of our favourite things about the Assistant is that it doesn’t just provide the answer in the form of text, it also reads it out loud, which makes the information more accessible.
AO: What are the obstacles to addressing mental health in our society?
Yasmin A. Razek: Although there’s some progress, one of the biggest challenges that still exists when it comes to mental health is the stigma that’s attached to it. Many individuals struggle in silence and are either not aware of the resources available around them or are unable to ask for help for their mental health out of fear of family members or friends finding out, or instilled societal beliefs that may influence them in keeping these matters private and ineffectively dealing with them on their own.
While working on reducing levels of stigma and discrimination around mental health, we are also increasing awareness and knowledge in our communities, helping individuals identify their moods and feelings, offering coping mechanisms, and connecting them to resources.
Addressing mental health is immensely important and the fact that we are shedding light and normalising mental health and asking for support is a wonderful step in the right direction for our society.