The Chat Box as Digital Therapist

Apps and Software

In this day and age, one can always turn to the Internet for a solution -- or a temporary remedy, at least -- to whatever problematic situation one finds himself in, even for frequent bouts of depression.

Talking, opening up, or venting out all help especially if done with a licensed mental health professional, but therapy is expensive anywhere.  Going to a therapist could be inconvenient physically for some; others might feel “not ready” to talk face-to-face with a stranger with whatever is bothering them.

There is an alternative option: Enter Woebot, an artificially intelligent chatbot designed using cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, one of the most heavily researched clinical approaches to treating depression.  Woebot uses Facebook’s Messenger app to deliver therapeutic conversations.  

The chatbot was designed by Alison Darcy, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University.  Before it was launched, a version of the technology was first tested on a small sample of 70 students who said they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety.  After splitting them into two groups, the group that spent two weeks chatting with Woebot reported not only chatting with the bot almost every day but seeing a significant reduction in their depressive symptoms.

The results of the trial were published June in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health.  Definitely, Woebot goes beyond chatrooms and half-baked mental health startups.

It was also found that an online setting for CBT is just as effective based on a review of studies published recently in the journal World Psychiatry.

One factor could be the fact that CBT focuses on discussing things that are happening in your life now as opposed to things that happened to you as a child, Darcy said. "A premise of CBT is it's not the things that happen to us — it's how we react to them," she noted.

Darcy, however, was quick to point out that bot-to-human therapy is not meant to replace traditional human-to-human therapy.  Apps and chat rooms that allow one to text or discuss his problems anonymously online are just additions to the toolkit of approaches to mental health.

Photo via Max Pixel