Meet the Chatbots That Care About Your Mental HealthSocial
A story recently published by the BBC illustrates how a cancer survivor was able to overcome her depression, by interacting with a mental health chatbot designed “for young people dealing with life beyond cancer.”
Using the smartphone application, she was able to converse with the chatbot called “Vivibot” whenever she needed it. She also received daily motivation, personalized mood reports, and tips on how to improve her mental and emotional state. This is one of many “success stories” where artificial intelligence was able to pull people out of their “dark place.”
The proliferation of chatbots that are dedicated to mentally and emotionally help people indicates that seeking help online is becoming increasingly popular. These chatbots are usually built on a platform of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which essentially means therapy through conversation.
The therapy aims to turn the patient’s negative thoughts into positive ones, by initiating light-hearted daily talk and creating a relaxing experience for the user.
In fact, at least 90 percent of teens and young adults with symptoms of depression said they had gone online for information about mental health issues, according to a survey reported by CBC news.
“There is some evidence to suggest that AI chatbots can help people suffering from depression and anxiety. This relates in part to accessibility and facilitation of disclosure and to [a] reduction in symptoms,” Dr. Lesa S Wright, Consultant Psychiatrist and Royal College of Psychiatrists representative to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory agency (MHRA) told Verdict.
Also, talking to a chatbot is more cost-effective and less intimidating for people who suffer from anxiety and depression symptoms.
Research shows that people with emotional distress are more comfortable talking anonymously to a machine from the comfort of their home without the fear of being judged, than physically visiting a psychologist’s office, which is already stigmatized in many societies around the world.
“Accessibility and early intervention in depression are crucial. The ‘always-on’ source of therapy provided by Flow ensures people get the help they need as quickly as possible,” said Daniel Mansson, Clinical Psychologist, CEO and Co-Founder of Flow, a chatbot therapist recently launched to help combat depression.
“Flow can provide anonymity without the fear of being judged by others. This is great as some people feel anxious when it comes to talking about their depression to another human,” he added.
WoeBot is another AI application that claims to help alleviate mental health disorders through fully automated conversations. The application’s conversational agent initiates the chat by asking users how there are feeling and sends them tips and videos on wellbeing according to their needs.
Seventy students aged 18-28 who had up to 20 sessions with Woebot reported significant decreases in their feelings of anxiety and depression, according to a study by Stanford University.
Also, Wysa is an AI-powered bot that helps users manage their feelings through CBT, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), as well as guided meditation, breathing, and yoga. Touchkin developed the app in collaboration with researchers from Columbia and Cambridge universities.
Mental health charity Mind lists WoeBot and Wysa as tools that can help users suffering from anxiety and depression. There are many more apps that claim to cater to one’s wellbeing through conversing and analyzing physical activity, location and movement patterns, social interactions, mood, energy, and more.
While experts praise these initiatives, they also warn that they might not be valid for all types of mental illnesses. When it comes to the role that AI could play in improving a human’s mental health, a distinction has to be made, argues Dr. Wright.
“A distinction needs to be made between severe mental disorders and mental wellbeing problems. In the study, participants tended to have mild-moderate symptoms depending on the rating scale used,” he says.
“Wellbeing problems are probably a better target for chatbots – anxiety and depression symptoms are very much the ‘common cold’ of mental wellbeing problems, which lend themselves quite well to self-help.”
Are our feelings and secrets safe with a chatbot?
On the other hand, behavioral scientist Dr. Pragaya Agarwal, warns against the “crowded market” where “several such chatbots are popping up and cashing in on the mental wellness drive across the world.”
She argues that mental health is too much of a complex, multi-layered issue to be handled by a trained algorithm. She mentions voice tone, facial expression, and body language as attributes that cannot be picked up by an online chatbot but might reveal more of a person’s mental state to a trained expert.
According to Agarwal, two areas of concern appear when relying on chatbots to improve the mental and emotional state; the “unconscious bias” in these AI-powered chatbots and people’s privacy and data security.
“Since people know that they are talking to a machine, they have no filter, no fear to be judged, and speak more freely, and therefore might share more than they would be with another human being,” she said.
“There is a lack of transparency, in the marketing and promotional material for such chatbots that not reveal what GDPR regulations are being adhered to, and what happens to the sensitive information that is being stored,” she added.