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Star Wars gets one surprising thing right about mental health

Unlike levitating space ships, you can do this one yourself.

Mental health is a touchy and underexplored subject in the Star Wars universe. Sure, there's broad talk of emotions — Hate! Fear! Anger! — but the core Skywalker saga movies emphasize the need to keep one's feelings under control, and the terrible consequences of failing to do so.

As Anakin learned the hard way, the Jedi do surprisingly little to help young padawans cope with traumatic experiences. However, there is some precedent for mental health treatment in Star Wars if you know where to look for it, and one example, in particular, is surprisingly similar to a recent trend in therapy that could reveal the future of technology-enabled treatment.

In the 2016 Star Wars novel Aftermath: Life Debt, which explores the events that follow Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, New Republic soldier Dade Hetkins receives surgery and treatment following injuries sustained in the Battle of Yavin. The doctor prescribes two post-operative procedures: group therapy with other Republic veterans and a therapy companion.

That second option is perhaps the cutest idea even imagined in the Star Wars universe: A therapy Ewok, one of many volunteering their services after their planet was liberated. But Dade rejects the offer, calling Ewok's "too smelly." As an alternative, the doctor suggests QT-9, a prototype therapy droid. Unfortunately, this chapter was a one-off interlude, so we don't get to see Dade work through his battle trauma with other Yavin vets, but what is said of the QT-9 droid reveals a whole new side to droid technology.

Ewoks: too smelly to be therapy companions, apparently.Lucasfilm

As far as therapy goes, it might not seem like a cold and unfeeling robot would help, but Brandon Saxton, Ph.D. of the Jedi Counsel podcast tells Inverse therapy droids may be closer to our own reality than we think. Specifically, he sees mental health apps as a precursor to this technology.

"There's one app that came to mind right away actually, it's called Woebot," Saxton explains. "It's based on scientifically validated cognitive behavior therapy principles, and it is a little robot app who checks in with you, asks you about your mood, gives you a cognitive behavioral therapy kind of skill, and then asks you for feedback about whether or not and that was helpful."

Cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, is a therapy focused on changing thinking patterns through mindfulness and "thinking hygiene." Sort of like retraining your brain to sort out helpful thoughts from the unhelpful ones. It's used to treat all sorts of mental health conditions but is most often used in treatment for depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness like the kind required for CBT is shown throughout the Star Wars movies, from the advice to "keep your concentration here and now" Qui-Gon gives Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace to the levitating meditation Rey practices in The Rise of Skywalker. While these may not be formal therapy practices, they use the same techniques: quieting the mind and taking inventory of your thoughts and emotions.

"CBT is about the ability to recognize thoughts are just being what they are, just thoughts," Saxton says. "And if you can get comfortable not engaging or attending with them, that can be helpful."

CBT has shown success in DIY-style treatment. The majority of the work is really done by the user, but the app provides tips and tricks as well as reminders to keep the treatment consistent. This doesn't necessarily replace the need for a therapist, but it does provide some sort of treatment to those who don't have access to mental healthcare, or those who can't leave their house regularly.

Qui-Gon's reminder to Obi-Wan to stay mindful is a basic example of CBT.Lucasfilm

QT-9 serves a purpose similar to a therapy dog, and in our own world, robots have also started to replace canine treatment. PARO is a therapeutic robot seal designed to help patients in situations where actual therapy animals prove difficult. It's mainly used in nursing homes and hospices, like in the Netflix series Master of None, where a PARO seal helps Arnold's grandfather cope with his dementia. While this technology is helpful to have in your lap and pet, it's not at the level of a Star Wars droid.

Maybe with further advances in A.I. technology, we'll see robot therapists capable of providing mental health support for more people in need. Until then, a little notification reminding the user to check in with an app isn't a bad start.