Feasibility, perceived impact, and acceptability of a socially assistive robot to support emotion regulation with highly anxious university students: an open trial

A. Jess Williams*, Maureen Freed, Nikki Theofanopoulou, Claudia Dauden Roquet, Predrag Klasnja, James J. Gross, Jessica Schleider, Petr Slovak

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Mental health difficulties among university students have been rising rapidly over the last decade, and the demand for university mental health services commonly far exceeds available resources. Digital interventions are seen as one potential solution to these challenges. However, as in other mental health contexts, digital programmes often face low engagement and uptake; and the field lacks usable, engaging, evidence-supported mental health interventions that may be used flexibly when students need them most.

Objectives: The aim of this study is to investigate the feasibility and acceptability of a new, in-situ intervention tool (Purrble) among university students experiencing anxiety. As an intervention, Purrble was designed to provide in-situ support for emotion regulation---a well-known transdiagnostic construct---directly in the moments when individuals are facing emotionally challenging situations. A secondary aim is to consider the perceived impact of Purrble on youth mental health, as reported by students over a 7-week deployment.

Methods: A mixed-methods open trial was conducted, with 78 under- and post-graduate students at Oxford University. Participants were recruited based on moderate to high levels of anxiety measured by GAD-7 at baseline (M: 16.09; SD: 3.03). All participants had access to Purrble for 7 weeks during the spring term, with data on their perceived anxiety, emotion dysregulation, emotion regulation self-efficacy, and engagement with the intervention collected at baseline (pre-), week 4 (mid-), and week 8 (post-intervention). Qualitative responses were also collected at the mid- and post-intervention points.

Results: Findings demonstrated a sustained engagement with Purrble over the 7 week period, with the acceptability further supported by the qualitative data indicating that students accepted Purrble and that Purrble was well-integrated into their daily routines. Exploratory quantitative data analysis indicated that Purrble was associated with reductions in student anxiety (dz= 0.96, 95% CI [0.62, 1.29]); and emotion dysregulation (dz = 0.69, 95% CI [0.38, 0.99]), and with increases in emotion regulation self-efficacy (dz = -0.56, 95% CI [-0.86, -0.26]).

Conclusions: This is a first trial of a simple, physical intervention that aims to provide ongoing emotion regulation support to university students. Both quantitative and qualitative data suggests that Purrble is an acceptable and feasible intervention among students, the engagement with which can be sustained at a stable level across a 7-week period, while retaining a perceived benefit for those who use it (61% of our sample). The consistency of use is particularly promising given that there was no clinician engagement or further support provided beyond Purrble being delivered to the students. These results show promise for an innovative intervention model, which could be complementary to the existing interventions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJMIR Mental Health
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023


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