Bots for Business

Chat with Your Therapist, Mr. Bot

Current scenario of mental healthcare services Mental health disorders were at an all-time high in 2019. A report published the same year by the World Economic Forum on mental health estimated that the mortality caused by these disorders can cost the global economy around $16 trillion by 2030. And, then, we were hit by the […]

By Ketaki Kolhatkar
June 3, 2021

Current scenario of mental healthcare services

Mental health disorders were at an all-time high in 2019. A report published the same year by the World Economic Forum on mental health estimated that the mortality caused by these disorders can cost the global economy around $16 trillion by 2030. And, then, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the world hit one of its lowest points in the healthcare sector and a majority of this consisted of people facing mental health issues. We can imagine how disastrous the situation is now. A World Health Organization (WHO) study conducted in 2020 across 130 countries revealed that due to a major economic downturn, large-scale layoffs, and mass casualties, increased levels of mental disorders were observed. With this scenario, with the decline in mental health services and people being isolated and quarantined at home, there seems to be a dire need for a technology that could help people worldwide—a technology that could reach everyone, irrespective of their financial conditions and geographic location, and could be available at any time of need.

Bots to the rescue

Artificial intelligence (AI) has solved many problems that seemed unsolvable just a few years ago. Machines, however powerful or intelligent, have lacked the emotional intelligence of a human. AI is commonly used for training machines to perform human-like tasks with specific inputs. Technologies like Siri and Amazon Alexa have become common household items. They have a human-like user experience. In the same way, by tweaking the inputs to these technologies, could there be a possibility of delivering this much-needed therapy at the ease of one’s fingertips? The answer is yes! By using a chatbot built on the principles of psychology, therapy, and cognitive-behavioral techniques, we can train it to give the user an experience similar to visiting a therapist. The scripts used by the chatbot to address the disorders should be based on well-evaluated principles of face-to-face psychotherapy. Operating on the evidence-based results, the chatbot could be trained with various conversation options.

The working of a therapist bot

The chatbots can be simple ones that detect certain keywords and make conversation based on these few words. This can make the user experience a bit limited as the answers can get repetitive. More powerful bots can find the patterns in a user’s conversation and comprehend the user’s emotions more effectively, thereby giving more insightful results. The bot can also deduce the users’ emotions through their speech, if it is a speech-based bot. These bots use technologies of artificial intelligence and natural language processing (NLP) to achieve desired results. NLP helps us map similar words, phrases, and sentences together, in turn helping the bot to understand the context of the chat and to respond accordingly. Hence, using all the possible means, a bot can try to get its mental attributes just as close to those of humans. This can be termed anthropomorphism—the extent to which the chatbot can imitate the behavioral attributes of a therapist.

Bots out there

One of the pioneers in these kinds of chatbots is the Woebot, founded in 2017 by Stanford psychologists and AI experts. The bot is built on NLP technology and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Along with a sense of humor, it has the ability to detect the user's emotion through the chat. "The replies we get are so comforting, it feels like we are chatting with a real therapist," said one user. The bot starts with a light conversation by asking around 10 questions and getting to know the user. The bot then asks us to describe in detail the troubles we were facing on that particular day. The text and the emojis from the answers are then analyzed using the CBT principles given to the bot, and it delivers the most suitable answers.

These texts are then stored to get an idea about the user's mood patterns and for future reference. The app also checks in on the user every day, with a 10-minute conversation about the user's day. This helps the user to access regular therapy despite a busy week. This app was built in English and mainly focuses on young adults in school and graduate colleges.

The benefits of therapist bots

Undoubtedly, a bot cannot replace a therapist as of yet. But this free-of-cost app provides a convenient means to start the process of therapy for someone who is busy or who does not have the financial capacity or is scared to go to the therapist due to social stigma. The results from the Stanford University team showed that using the app for two weeks can help reduce the symptoms of depression.

Other such chatbots for therapy include Wysa, Joyable, and Talkspace, built on the same basic principles as that of Woebot. Although these might be offering the same services as a therapist, in no way can they replace an actual therapist yet for serious issues.

The concerns with therapist bots

As Samir Parikh, the Director of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, India, said, “There is definitely potential in how artificial intelligence can contribute to improving mental health. But they cannot replace the more nuanced interpersonal dynamics that are key to guiding treatment in psychotherapy.” The other concerns that people have are regarding the confidentiality of their personal data. Many people do not feel comfortable sharing such intimate details with a machine and would rather have a trained human helping them out. Technical issues, like the repetition of answers or the break of flow due to network issues, also come into the picture with the technology used. To summarize, a few issues a user might have are confidentiality, lack of standardization and monitoring, and overdependence on the bot.

The apps also explicitly mention that they are not an alternative for therapy as they cannot deal with the more serious mental health problems. Online safety laws are also to be followed by the companies building these bots in case of ethical and moral dilemmas. The company is responsible to guide their user in the right direction or pay heavy fines.

Our verdict

On the flip side, as we discussed, having a therapy chatbot can be a first step towards taking help for mental health issues. For people having social stigma, financial inabilities, and time constraints, this can be greatly beneficial. Also, a bot would be available at 2 a.m. at night as well as at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, whenever it is convenient for the user. The development of this technology is a ray of hope for our future, in making the world a more happy and healthy place!

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only. The information is not a supplement to nor a substitute for the knowledge, skill, and judgment of qualified psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, and healthcare professionals.