Robotics has come a long way in the past few decades.
We now have self-driving cars, automated vacuum cleaners, and even humanoids that look a lot like their creators but don’t — yet — do much.
Today’s robot designers are looking to make their creations more intelligent, more animated, and less dependent on humans for instruction.
One of the first forays into the creation of an educated and adaptable robot is a device meant to help people with anxiety and depression.
Woebot, a chatbot that can read and learn from human messages, offers cognitive behavioral therapy instructions to users.
Like a therapist, Woebot is designed to ask users questions and then pick up on keywords and phrases in the answers. It will offer users guided conversations and suggestions to help them cope with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Unlike a therapist, Woebot is available 24/7 through Facebook Messenger.
You are talking to a computer, not a human.
However, advocates say that provides a greater level of accessibility with a bit more anonymity.
“You can access it when you need it most,” Alison Darcy, PhD, Woebot founder and chief executive, told the Los Angeles Times. “If it’s 2 a.m. and you’re having a panic attack, a physician isn’t going to be available at that time.”
What do you lose in favor of this greater access, though?
Several things, said Colleen Andre, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in working with clients struggling with anxiety disorders and panic attacks.
“Some people believe it is a substitute for counseling services,” Andre told Healthline. “They are not the one-fix solution. They are a great addition to therapy or help for minor situations. However, they are not replacement for human warmth, organic conversation, and a licensed professional.”
Andre encourages her patients to use apps and digital assistance devices as a supplemental tool to traditional treatment.
For their part, Darcy and the folks at Woebot do not claim that their product is a substitute for clinical treatment.
In fact, if the chatbot detects that your mood and other signs of depression aren’t improving after a few weeks, it will begin directing you toward seeking medical help.
A revolution for mental health treatment?
As much as one-fifth of people in the United States experience clinical depression in their lifetime.
However, only about 50 percent of all Americans diagnosed with the mood disorder actually receive treatment.
That may be because the traditional treatment avenues for mental health disorders can be burdensome in several ways.
The current model requires someone to take an hour at regular intervals — as frequently as once a week in many cases — to sit face to face with a therapist or counselor. Getting away from work that often may be difficult if not impossible.
Likewise, the cost of the appointment and lost wages can also preclude individuals from seeking therapy treatment.
Meanwhile, many apps are free or have a one-time cost below $10. Woebot is $39 per month.
While some health insurance plans cover mental health services, the company may require individuals to undergo several layers of referrals before treatment is approved. That can be a tax in both time and money.
Even Google is making moves to help individuals confront their symptoms and find help.
In conjunction with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the tech giant recently launched a clinically validated screening questionnaire for depression.
Now, if you Google depression, this questionnaire will pop up if you ask to “Check if you’re clinically depressed.”
The guided tool will help you determine your level of depression.
Knowing and understanding why you’re feeling the way you are may spur people to treatment faster and help them get quicker access.
Help from your phone
“Apps and online information can absolutely be helpful for depression,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, the chief executive officer and executive director of Innovation 360, an outpatient group of counselors and therapists dedicated to helping clients overcome mental health, addiction, and relationship challenges.
“We often think too narrowly about what is therapeutic for people,” Gilliland told Healthline. “We just have to be careful and not ask something to do more than it can.
“For instance, we know that physical exercise is good for our mood, and by good, I mean therapeutic,” Gilliland added. “Physical activity helps to decrease negative mood. However, don’t expect physical activity to fix depression. We should expect it to help, but in a little way.”
In the same way, Gilliland says, apps and information can provide good information as long as the right expectations are set.
“Apps can help to shift our thoughts and even our moods and orient us toward the day or a situation in a more healthy and positive way. With mood, we sometimes struggle to have thoughts that are appropriate, somewhat positive. Apps are a way to help,” he said.
Will therapy apps and chatbots soon take over and replace traditional therapists?
The creators of Woebot don’t intend for their product to do that either.
Instead, they think of Woebot as a tool to help provide a boost and redirection as needed. Think of it is a bit of direction in the days and weeks when you can’t meet with your therapist.
“The idea of therapy is so burdensome and loaded for some people, and we’re not that — we’re not as intensive,” Darcy told the Los Angeles Times. “We have this hope that people will use us and not even realize we’re a mental health tool.”
“I think the apps are very helpful, especially since we are in the day and age where technology is deeply embedded into our lives,” Andre said. “Many of these apps have helpful features such as emotions check-ins, which can ultimately track a client’s emotions throughout the day and week. These apps can be useful in helping a client see tangible results or pinpoint triggers to help them work on their issue. I believe, and have seen, these apps be a resource and outlet for struggling clients during times of panic and isolation.”