Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may benefit from talking to a virtual interviewer rather than an actual person.

According to a new study, soldiers felt more comfortable opening up to a computer-generated “human” interviewer that combines the advantages of anonymity with social connection and rapport.

PTSD can include disturbing thoughts, feelings and dreams and is often accompanied by a stigma that makes soldiers reluctant to seek help.

“Allowing PTSD to go untreated can potentially have disastrous consequences, including suicide attempts,” Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California, said in a statement.

Troops returning from a tour of duty have their mental health assessed by the U.S. military from a survey called the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA). However, because the results can affect a soldier’s career prospects in the military they are often reluctant to answer completely honestly.

The computer-generated interviewer could provide soldiers with the rapport-building skills of actual humans, while maintaining the feelings of anonymity and safety provided by anonymous surveys.

The researchers tested this theory with a group of soldiers who came home following a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.

Each troop underwent an official PDHA survey and then completed an anonymous version by selecting answers on a computer, as well as an anonymous interview conducted by a virtual interviewer who built a rapport before asking PTSD-related questions.

The soldiers revealed significantly more PTSD symptoms to the virtual interviewer than in either of the other two surveys.

The researchers then repeated the study with a larger group of soldiers and veterans but took out the anonymous survey on the computer.

During this study, the soldiers and veterans suffering from more mild symptoms opened up and disclosed more symptoms to the virtual interviewer than the anonymous survey.

“These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Lucas said. “By receiving anonymous feedback from a virtual human interviewer that they are at risk for PTSD, they could be encouraged to seek help without having their symptoms flagged on their military record.”

The study was published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI.