Santa Clara tech gurus look to AI to help troubled teens thrive

ST. GEORGE — For many, the idea of artificial intelligence, or AI, is something scary. But for two tech entrepreneurs in Santa Clara, AI is something that could make teens less scared about dealing with their mental health. 

(L-R) Ryan, Ryder and Kristi Holt of Santa Clara, Utah, seen in an undated photo after one of Ryder’s football games with Snow Canyon High, are three of the main minds powering the artificial mind of The MECA Project designed to help teens with their mental health, St. George, Utah | Photo courtesy of Kristi Holt, St. George News

Kristi Holt and her husband Ryan have teamed up with San Diego-based therapist and author Amber Trueblood to create a virtual space where young adults can have a “safe space” to deal with their emotional health. 

The Holts say the MECA Project, with the acronym standing for “Mentally and Emotionally through Conscious Awareness,” is a website, app and non-profit initiative that will give youth unbiased information and tools to deal with their emotions.

What may set it apart from other mental health resources for teens is it uses an AI known as “Gabi” to provide that support. That includes the ability of the AI to determine a teen’s emotional state just by hearing their voice. 

With a lot of talk about how social media and the Internet are contributing to a decline in teens’ mental health – including by the governor of Utah –  Kristi Holt said the key is not to keep kids and teens from going online but making sure the technology works for them.

“If you’re living in a world that says get rid of technology, you’re going to lose,” Holt told St. George News. ”All internet is good and bad. One of the most profound things we can do is use technology for good.”

As MECA is being rolled out, people in Southern Utah will get one of the first chances to see it in action and get further mental health tools and advice for young adults at the all-day MECA Conference on Saturday at Utah Tech’s Gardner Building. The event is free for ages 12-26, and $20 for those older and includes lunch. 

The Holts have been using their Vibeonix app — technology for adults that is designed to boost their mental health. Now, they say they’re hoping to help teens through technology. 

Our goal is for teens to have less resistance to getting help,” Kristi Holt said. “This is not just for struggling people but so people don’t struggle. The only thing that grounds us is our emotions.”

The idea came about, Holt says, last year when both she and her husband were hearing story after story about kids in the state taking their lives. The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says the leading cause of death among teens in the state is suicide.  

Stock photo. | Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Holt said the MECA Project is meant to build positive thoughts and energy among teens. To that end, negative words like “struggling” are avoided. Rather than keeping teens in negativity, the idea is to create a positive environment where people ages 12-26 don’t feel alone and feel like they are being listened to – even when the thing doing the listening isn’t human.  

“We wanted more of a high-vibe place to thrive and not just sit in the problem,” Holt said. “We’re shifting the conversation from struggling to thriving. It’s not talking at them. It can’t not listen to you.”

Holt demonstrated MECA and Gabi to St. George News. The interface is similar to that of ChatGPT, one of the most prevalent AI chatbots. But the responses by Gabi are filled with something unexpected from a machine: Empathy.

Such is the difference between telling ChatGPT that you’re depressed versus saying the same thing to Gabi. 

I’m really sorry to hear that you’re feeling depressed. It’s important to remember that I’m an AI language model, so I can’t provide professional help,” ChatGPT replies.

But the response from Gabi – which doesn’t stand for anything but is a play on the word “gab” – starts similarly, but Holt said it’s designed to show a sense of caring and also provide additional resources for help. 

Screenshot of a chat with Gabi, an AI at the heart of The MECA Project, June 8, 2023 | Screenshot via MECA Project, St. George News

“I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling depressed,” Gabi starts out with the same words as ChatGPT, but expands from there. “It can be a difficult and overwhelming experience, but there are steps you can take to help improve your mood and overall well-being.”

Both ChatGPT and Gabi then provide tips and resources for dealing with depression, though Gabi is a little more specific.

Holt said Gabi’s responses are based on more than 11,000 case studies and decades of research on the emotional well-being of teens. Insight is also provided by co-founder Trueblood, the author of the book “The Unflustered Mom.”The three have been testing it for the last six months and believe the MECA Project is ready for prime time.

Ultimately, the responses will provide help and provide a listening ear but won’t provide an ultimate solution. Instead, it encourages teens to get additional help from resources they can access themselves as well as help from their peers and trusted adults. 

Gabi will never say, ‘I have it all figured out,’” Holt said. “It will say, “Here’s a way to talk to a trusted adult.’”

It isn’t only the so-called “grown-ups” who have had a hand in the creation of MECA. A youth advisory board made up of several teens and young adults has direct input on the project and its execution. It was that group that came up with the MECA name, Holt said, to describe it as a “positive oasis” mecca where all teens are welcome. 

Undated image of Kristi Holt, one of the co-founders of The MECA Project | Photo courtesy of Kristi Holt, St. George News

Among them is the Holts’ 16-year-old son Ryder, one of four children in the family, who has helped his parents work out some of the kinks. He said it’s actually an advantage that Gabi is a machine in that it won’t be judgmental or harsh like some of his peers might.

It doesn’t care if a teen talking to it is a star on the football team or alone in the chess club or hangs with the popular kids or by themselves. 

It’s a caring listener because it doesn’t care who is talking. 

“You can get help for your own personal stuff because it’s not biased,” Ryder said. “Gabi lets me ask whatever I want.”

It also doesn’t care about the sexual orientation of the teen. That’s important considering a recent Utah Department of Health and Human Services report that said, with suicide already being an issue for teen health, approximately 48% of gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers in the state seriously considered suicide in 2021.

Stock photo. | Photo by SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

A part of the AI is the ability to get past the dreaded “how are you doing” question that parents of teens know usually ends up in the one-word answer of “fine.”

We don’t ask people how they’re doing, we ask them how they’re feeling,” Kristi Holt said.  

After a teen joins MECA, they have a voice analysis done by the AI which consists of nothing more than counting to 15. Even from that, Holt says the AI can determine the teen’s emotional state and help aid them in their emotional growth.

“Even if you’re trying to hide your emotions, the frequency of your voice can’t lie,” Holt said. 

There is the matter of security. To the question of who will ultimately see the responses, Holt said that is between the teenager and Gabi. She said they are conforming to HIPAA privacy laws. Holt did say overall data will be gathered and potentially shared such as the number of users and the age ranges, but she said nothing about the conversations between the teens and Gabi will go beyond a two-way conversation. 

Everything with Gabi is 100% confidential. Not even parents. They can ask how they can get information from their teen and I would say, ‘You’re going to need to ask them,’” Holt said, adding that confidentiality is important to make the teens feel like they have a safe place, and that somebody – or something – is listening.

“Safety comes from listening.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!