Are Woebots The Future Of Therapy?

Are Woebots The Future Of Therapy?

As artificial intelligence continues to go from strength to strength, chatbots have started to take on the odd jobs of humans, from helping Australians work out their national disability benefits to counselling Syrian refugees as they escape war. Now, they’re helping people with mental health problems.

Woebot is a talk therapy chatbot created by a team of psychologists and AI experts at Stanford University. It uses brief daily conversations, curated videos, mood tracking and word games in order to help users cope with their feelings of depression and anxiety. After spending the last year building a collection of clinical data, the company behind the chatbot, Woebot Labs Inc, launched the final product, which is free for users.

Alison Darcy, the clinical psychologist at Stanford who created Woebot, based the tool on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT), which approaches depression with an aim to encourage people to examine how they deal with challenging situations. The result is a cheeky, personalised, easy-to-talk-to system that checks in with users once a day and tracks your mood in order to find out why you feel the way you do.

It’s the perfect app for people who struggle to find the time and money to pay for IRL therapy sessions, which are often far out of reach for many. But Woebot’s creators feel as though this could surpass the help given by human therapists. “It’s almost borderline illegal to say this in my profession, but there’s a lot of noise in human relationships,” Darcy told Wired. “Noise is the fear of being judged. That’s what stigma really is.”

As Woebot literally means you’ll be sounding off to an anonymous piece of AI technology, the fear of judgement can become non-existent. But it only knows as much as you reveal to it, and as such, how much you reveal determines how much you want it to help and how much you want to help yourself. “Woebot is a robot you can tell anything to,” says Darcy. “It’s not an AI that’s going to tell you stuff you don’t know about yourself by detecting some magic you’re not even aware of.”

As the technology is based on CBT, Woebot mostly asked questions such as, “What’s going on in your world right now?” and “What is your energy like today?”, encouraging users to look at their feelings towards both life events and everyday occurrences, and then identify what is causing stress anxiety and depression. The aim of this is to talk through any negative thoughts you might be having and instead look at them in a more positive light.

Having downloaded the app and given it a go ourselves, it’s easy to see how this would help. The set-up is quick and easy, and the way the chatbot gets to know you and your stressors is seamless – like a friend, rather than a therapist. It rarely lets you type in your own, bespoke response, rather letting you pick between prompts. It did, however, let us write down a situation we were worried about and picked out the words that indicated we were ‘sad’. It then let us pick between two tools that could help our situation. We chose ‘self-help’, which led to us picking three activities to do this week that’ll help to improve mood. It’s small, easy tasks that involve very little input to maximum effect.

It’s important to note that while Woebot is a therapeutic experience, it isn’t your GP, and it can’t make diagnoses. It’s can’t help with real life mental crises – although when it senses someone is in trouble it will provide mental health text and hotline numbers.

Even so, users of the app have been raving about it. In the Ratings & Reviews section on iTunes, Woebots has received 4.4 stars out of five. “I genuinely think Woebot is altering the way I approach life… What’s clear is that it offers no quick fixes, but it builds up over time,” said one user, while another added: “This app is very helpful if you are open minded (sic) and willing to give it a chance… I think it supplements therapy really well.”

Give Woebots a try here.

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