VA, IBM Unveil AI-Powered Mental Fitness App to Help Vets Transitioning to Civilian Life

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Individuals interested in participating in a field test to assess the new platform can apply to do so online.

The Veterans Affairs Department and IBM unveiled a new mobile application—called “Get Results in Transition”—specifically designed to help veterans, reservists and other service members better understand and boost their mental fitness and overall well-being.

Interested individuals can sign up to participate in an ongoing field test of GRIT, which securely aggregates data about individual users and implements artificial intelligence to get to “know” them, and offer unique insights, resources and tools to support their mental health. 

“There are lots of people who are traumatized every day and don’t have the resources and aren’t really aware of what they could be doing to help themselves recover from that and maintain resiliency and their ability to thrive,” Nicole Gardner, IBM’s senior advisor for veteran and military health told Nextgov Wednesday. “And it doesn’t just happen—if you don’t go to the gym, you won’t build muscles and if you are not working on your overall mental fitness, you are not going to be as resilient, as productive, or as happy as you could be.”

The new neuroscience-based digital solution is the first instantiation of IBM’s THRIVE360° mental fitness platform that aims to provide people with new tools and resources to turn to for  times of tough transition. IBM eventually plans to deploy the tech to other adopters such as law enforcement, first responders and foster children aging out of the system who have little to no support. GRIT is the first profile use case IBM built out of the technology, partially as part of its long-term commitment to support the VA and help combat the increasing rise in veteran suicide

The project has been brewing for more than three years and has survived transitions of four VA secretarites and three different leaders in the Office of Suicide and Prevention, Gardner noted. In 2016, the tech giant signed a memorandum of understanding with the VA to develop a mobile solution powered by THRIVE and in 2018 established a collaboration with Total Brain to develop the mental health and fitness platform. This June, IBM was awarded a five-month contract to facilitate the field test of VA’s GRIT tool.

“This partnership has been amazingly resilient,” Gardner said. “By staying focused on our veterans and [aim] to serve the people who served our country, we’ve been able to maintain our focus on that North star and stay with the program.”

At its core, the solution uses Total Brain’s technology to enhance users’ well-being and overall health from physical, mental, social and financial standpoints. Gardner highlighted four specific features that enable the app to provide users with a new level of self-awareness and comprehensive approach to monitoring their mental health and well-being.

The first feature is “Mind Gym,” which offers scientific assessments and personalized brain training and where other insights around understanding resiliency and emotional well-being are housed. Another feature, “The Squad,” focuses on personal relationships and social connectedness. For users who opt in, the app will reach out to people in their emotional support networks to check in on them ahead of time, if they sense themselves (or the app finds that they are) approaching a downward emotional spiral.

“Isolation, the loss of comradery and the kinship when you are in the military is a really big loss for folks who are transitioning out and into civilian life,” Gardner said. “So maintaining that social-connectedness is really important to help people stay vital and vibrant in their lives.”  

The third feature is focused on job-matching and employment. IBM partnered with a company called Burning Glass, which Gardner said will bring 180,000 new jobs nationwide into the site every day. It’s also curated by IBM’s Watson Employment Manager, a cognitive artificial intelligence tool that helps translate military skill sets into civilian positions. The app will also help users tailor their job searches specifically to what they are skilled in and what they aspire to achieve.

GRIT also includes a digital assistant and AI-enabled chatbot to help users with general questions, connect them with resources specific to their needs and that can also detect if users do not sound normal to their baseline. If so, it can put them in touch with the help they need. 

Total Brain CEO Louis Gagnon told Nextgov that the app uses neuro-scientific tests that can be done in less than 20 minutes to assess brain function and evaluate how users are doing across their emotions, feelings, cognition and self control. On top of offering gamified exercises to boost memory, focus, planning, and positivity that are custom-tailored to improve individual users’ specific weaker areas, they’ve also built in scientific screening tests for depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and sleep apnea. 

He said the app can also predict with “70 to 80% accuracy” whether someone is at risk of “having something” and then in turn the technology is leveraged to help that person self-reflect and determine when and how they’ll go about getting help. 

“The idea here is to give someone a sense of their capacities as opposed to their problems and get them to work on their weaknesses and their strengths at the same time, so that they can self-optimize and be a better human being that has more cognition and is more in control,” Gagnon said. “And what is so unique about this to me is the fact that mental health is an individual responsibility that is highly influenced by our social determinants and what we are doing here is we are really empowering people to change individually and to change their social conditions by getting jobs, housing and in better positions financially. And I think this is the first that brings it all together.”

The app’s users are also encouraged to retake the baseline assessment of their core capacities on a monthly basis to track their progress and continuously adapt the Mind Gym to best cater to their needs. Due to the sensitivity that could come with hosting such intimate information about many aspects of people’s lives and realities, Gagnon emphasized that securing the app is a critical priority. 

“I will not stress enough how important it is to keep this process completely user-driven and confidential, because we believe that this is sacred information that no one should have the right to use—except for the user,” he said.

Gardner added that the app’s user-centered design was built around ensuring that all the information collected actually stays on the devices and cannot be shared. Though, she added, there’s always a possibility that some information-sharing could be useful in the future as the platform evolves. 

“It’s completely and totally private to the individual—there’s no sharing of data at this time,” she said. 

The GRIT field test is set to last until November 8. Following its completion, IBM plans to develop a plan for the full future launch of GRIT. 

“I hope it really contributes to the health and happiness of the people who use it,” Gardner said. “And by doing so, having a cascading effect through their families and through their communities to help those folks have a positive impact in their lives.”