The number of people suffering from mental illness is on the rise globally. In the US, nearly 20% of American adults suffer from depression, many of whom will never seek mental health care due to lack of resources, lack of trained health care providers, or the social stigma associated with mental illness. The need for immediate care in response to the rise in mental health cases has not been met through traditional methods, and the mental health care industry is ripe for disruption.
Enter Woebot – an AI chatbot that provides customers with someone to talk to any time of day without delay. By combining artificial intelligence and mental health care, Woebot is able to reach many more people that are suffering and provide actionable items to help them stay on the right path. Woebot provides daily notifications to check-in with its customers, giving them the sense that they are cared and thought about, all the while protecting their anonymity.
While still at the beginning of its development, Woebot utilizes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to provide support to those suffering from anxiety or depression. Alison Darcy, creator of the app and clinical psychologist from Stanford, saw potential in pairing AI with CBT, an effective type of psychotherapy that focuses on turning unhelpful cognitive distortions or behaviors into manageable facts which are easier to solve and cope with.
While the app has seen initial success, Woebot faces challenges to be expected when dealing with telemedicine, such as how to make a robot empathetic, how to customize the experience for users based on their profiles, and how to protect patients’ privacy. While these challenges are substantial, they are in no way limited to Woebot. Other startups in the AI mental health industry face similar hurdles, and as their numbers grow, the technology to support them will as well.
In the future, I believe AI and mental health care can go hand-in-hand. For mild cases of anxiety, depression, or simply loneliness, Woebot offers users a convient, anonymous, and inexpensive way to seek help. For more acute cases of mental illness, Woebot is a great companion to have in addition to more traditional sources of mental health care such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or medication.
While CBT lends itself particularly well to chatbots since it focuses on the present, the industry will eventually move into a direction where talk therapy concerning historical events can be digitalized. With more people suffering from mental illness than available medical health providers, the disruption of AI in the mental health care industry is truly providing value to an underserved population of silent sufferers.