• 03-16-2021

  • 4 min read

  • Anna Prist

Mental Health Bots: Are We at The Breaking Point?

AI-powered therapy bots are experiencing a surge in demand. What’s next for them?

Originally published at Voice UI.

We’re living in turbulent times, trying to get used to the ever-changing new normal amind the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic crisis, and social disasters. With the uncertain future looming over, people are searching for ways to find their ground and keep inner balance. In isolation, people seek alternative ways to fight anxiety — namely AI-powered mental health chatbots. Here we’re breaking down why mental health bots are gaining momentum and what’s in store for them.

The mental health crisis

Recently the Well Being Trust together with the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine looked into the psychological impacts of COVID-19 and discovered that additional 75,000 Americans “could die due to “diseases of despair” (suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses) that came with the COVID-19 crisis. Chuck Ingoglia, president of the National Council for Behavioral Health, mirrored their predictions, saying “This is the greatest crisis to ever hit community mental-health and addiction-treatment providers.” Even before the COVID crisis hit, only depression affected over 300 million people according to data from the WHO.

At the same time, people with mental health conditions often feel reluctant to seek treatment, since the illness is often stigmatized — and that’s even when health care and social services are accessible. And with so many people in a lockdown due to the pandemic — some with their family members — it’s even more challenging to discreetly seek and receive therapy.

It comes as no surprise that, top 10 mental wellness apps including Calm and Headspace accumulated up to 10 million downloads in April 2020, up 24.2 % from the installs they generated in January 2020. According to Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer Headspace’s, they’ve seen a 19-fold increase in people searching for stress-relieving meditations, with a 14-fold jump in those for anxiety relief. The company even unveiled free subscriptions to healthcare professionals working in public health settings through 2020.

Loneliness is yet another stress factor people have to deal with these days, so AI-powered virtual friends like Replika by the eponymous California-based startup also registered an influx of new users, who state that “conversations make them feel better.”

At the same time, there are conditions and situations where no guided meditation or a virtual surrogate friend can help. In response to those, technology companies offer AI-powered virtual therapists that are always ready to listen and chat, recommend activities for improved wellbeing, and guarantee privacy and anonymity.

AI therapists

One of the best-known AI-powered mental health apps, Woebot has also seen increased usage during the pandemic as it redesigned its program to address the crisis. The chatbot can monitor users’ moods and conduct therapeutic conversations, encouraging them to express thoughts and emotions.

Intended originally for young adults and graduate school students, Woebot is designed on a platform of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), powered with natural language processing, clinical background, and cheery daily conversations that create a therapeutic experience for users.

With a similar ambition, research scientists at the University of Utah founded Lyssn, a conversational agent backed by deep learning algorithms trained on recordings and sharing of psychotherapy conversations. A resource-consuming process when done manually, Lyssn’s product was trained with the help of various therapists. The advantage here is not just spared resources, but also consistency and lesser bias.

There is also Moodkit by Thriveport, which comprises a system of applications that somehow lighten the symptoms of mental illness with the help of guided activities that discover and reframe negative thought patterns, tools that monitor moods across time, and text journaling with custom templates.

Other companies offer a range of therapy chatbots: X2AI’s bot, Sara, uses natural language processing to engage users in conversations on Facebook Messenger, helping them manage stress and anxiety. Another example is Lark Health, a chatbot that is intended for managing diabetes and hypertension, gathering and analyzing sleep, weight, and nutrition information from users in daily conversation.

Yet another chatbot therapist, called Flow, engages users with daily chat conversations and offers self-help techniques, mood tracking, curated videos, meditation, and mental exercises. It encourages them to learn how sleep, exercise, nutrition, and meditation can help recover from depression. Gathering mood data, Flow offers personalized responses modeled on behavioral therapy.

Sure, these applications cannot amount to the power of human connection, but the 24/7 access to a therapist is not something we can easily get in the present-day reality.

Are we there yet?

While mental health apps are fairly new, the WHO statistics and the growing user base show there is a clear demand. With so much of our lives transitioning into digital and mobile phones becoming ubiquitous, the apps grant the anonymity people with mental health conditions couldn’t hope for a decade ago.

While there are controversies and issues around mental health chatbots, they can still help patients surpass the stigma of mental health disorders and step forward to seek treatment.

Not designed to prescribe specific medical treatment, these apps make only the first of many steps to relieving certain mental health symptoms. It will require years of research to equip mental health bots with such functionality. Also, many apps are designed within academic settings and often lack the resources to bring the product to a certain level.

At the same time, before the pandemic, medical institutions were somewhat cautious to adopt mental health apps. But with the growing demand for telemedicine clinics and hospitals might thaw towards AI-powered health assistants in general.

It’s still the early days of mental health chatbots and therapy apps: we’ll need to wait for mass adoption, extensive research, and clear industry standards that will guarantee patients the proper treatment. But the growing demand shows that the apps provide something traditional therapy is missing so far — quickly and anonymously finding initial help on users’ terms.

Naturally, treating mental health disorders without human connection and correct diagnosis is impossible — and we can expect that to remain the case for many years to come. One thing is for sure — mental health apps are not just a hyped-up trend, but rather a tool that can complement traditional therapy when done right. And, as the pandemic crisis taught us, they can provide the much-needed help when there is no o limited access to traditional therapy.

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