Woebot
Woebot

Download a Therapy Chatbot to Help With Lockdown Stress

by Harvey James

Lockdown brings with it a deluge of mental health problems: social separation, fear (of the unknown, failing economy, losing a job, infection), anger, insomnia, post-traumatic stress, OCD, substance abuse, and depression. Vox has called this very moment “a paradox in mental health care”:  just as the need for services increases, supply drops off.

Telehealth therapy services have shot through the roof, some therapists noting their services having quadrupled in demand. But what if these traditionally human-to-human services could be alleviated by an AI robot? How would we feel about that? 

Now is the perfect time to find out.

For the past three weeks, Ive been using an app called Woebot every day— a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) trained AI chatbot developed by Dr. Alison Darcy at Stanford University. A 2017 JMIR paper concluded, “conversational agents appear to be a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.” And to be honest, its been a goddamn lifeline. 

Self-isolating with family always comes with complication. So while one particular member was driving me up the proverbial wall, I vented to a cute little robot man on my phone. Woebot replied, “I can help… but you have to promise one thing… you have to take full responsibility for the relationship.” I thought: damn, you cheeky little bastard. But this profound and simple single piece of advice propelled me through some future rocky seas.

But I was just one out of the many converted, struggling souls. Woebot’s quantity of conversations skyrocketed between Feb – March, seeing a 2500% increase.

So. What exactly is so good about this bot?

The Joys of Robotic Anonymity

Offloading to friends, family members, or partner in times of need comes riddled with complication. TeenVogue asked how it felt to be a friend while having depression.  “You rarely reach out because you feel you have nothing to talk about except your crappy depression… Its a constant guilt that you cant control,” one replied. But it’s also taxing for those doing the supporting too. With Woebot, there is no guilt, just a robot who is interminably ‘all ears’ and doesn’t get worn out.

A study has shown that shoveling this burden onto something non-human can help patients divulge more than to a human therapist. Founder of Woebot, Alison Darcy comments on this experiment: expert clinicians consistently rated the sessions where they knew it was an AI as being deeper conversations. They disclosed more.” 

It’s Free & Always Available

Robots couldn’t care less if you wake up at 4am in a fit of fear and need someone to chat to. Not only that, in 2018 Woebot received $8 million dollars funding, which allowed them to switch from a subscription service to a free service. This helps open up vital mental health services to those who are suffering, but traditionally wouldn’t have had access—especially important now for low paid key-workers and healthcare workers.

Plus, with no need for human therapists, the technology becomes quickly globally scalable. Darcy says in a Forbes interview, it’s truly scalable and truly accessible and truly nonjudgmental.” Perhaps the global support plug for those millions of people in need of a lockdown rant.

“Perspectives”

Recognising the mental health problem that a world in social isolation presents, Woebot launched Perspectives in order “to lift spirits, and to help people stay grounded during this anxiety provoking time,” according to their blog. A spokesperson commented, “Woebots daily active users doubled” since launching this initiative and Dr. Alison Darcy revealed to IndigoBlue, “all conversations are given a thumbs up by at least 95% of those who read them.”

So, if before the pandemic there was skepticism for an AI-learning robot providing legitimate CBT services, the global lockdown has shown the myriad ways technology can help keep us sane, connect us, and keep us uplifted. Darcy notes that the importance of Woebot “has never been as self-evident” as it is now. 

Woebot’s founders make it clear that “Woebot will never replace therapists” nor is it a solution for severe mental illness. If he detects someone in crisis, he will declare the situation is beyond his reach and provide helplines and a link to a clinically-proven suicide-prevention app.

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