How Mental Health Chatbots Are Helping Users Help Themselves
Last December, Jesse Taylor was worried that the stress of his job and being a stay-at-home dad for his infant son was taking its toll.
Taylor, 36, lives in Winnipeg and works as an operations manager for an online business. He felt overwhelmed by his responsibilities and distracted by the sleep deprivation that often comes with caring for a young child. And then his wife suggested that Taylor try one of Thriveport’s mental health apps. “She suggested I give it a go to get out of those negative talk tracks I had gotten into from lack of sleep,” he says.
Taylor is one of a growing number of consumers using an app for emotional support. While in most respects, data is emotion’s polar opposite, a growing number of companies are deploying data and artificial intelligence to address emotional stress—and studies show that there is a pressing need for such help. According to one study in 2014, nearly 30 percent of us experience symptoms of mental disorder at some point in our lifetime, and while many are put off by notoriously high prices of therapy — others are too embarrassed to reach out.
In just two years, the number of active mental health startups have more than doubled since 2015 to nearly 500. While taking slightly different tracks, these apps all rely on data to address a broad range of emotional challenges, from anxiety to depression. The apps have yet to receive rigorous testing, but anecdotal evidence suggests the technology is effective in providing emotional support.
Need Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? There’s an App for That
Taylor’s wife recommended an app from Thriveport called Moodnotes. Its methodology is rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a process used to help patients reframe negative thoughts into positive ones.
Moodnotes is set up in the style of a “thought journal.” Each day, users like Taylor open the app, rate their current mood, and provide a short sentence or description (“I’m hard at work and enjoying a cup of coffee”). They also have the option to add greater detail by choosing from a large menu of emotions—the app is trained to differentiate between positive (“bold,” “eager” “energized”) and negative (“angry,” “confused,” “disappointed”).
If the user’s statement expresses a negative emotion, the app can respond accordingly. Say, for example, Taylor wrote, “The baby’s fussing is going to keep me from getting a full night’s sleep. I’ll be worthless at work tomorrow.” Moodnotes might serve up some information about the CBT term, “Catastrophizing,” which involves exaggerating the predicted consequences of a situation. After identifying the mental traps that apply, the user then can reassess their thoughts (“I can still be productive without a full night’s sleep”) in order to change their feelings.
As Taylor phrased it, it helped him “get an idea of how things were going, versus how I thought they were going.”
Thriveport’s Moodnotes is far from the only app offering this kind of support for users like Taylor. Woebot, launched in June of 2017, is another example of an app that uses CBT. Rather than Moodnotes’ journaling-style, Woebot collects data about a person’s emotions via a conversational interface. It then processes that data using AI to understand positive and negative sentiments—and serves up conversational answers to help users reframe their thoughts. Already, Woebot’s creators say it’s active in over 130 countries and facilitates the exchange of two million messages with users each week. The company plans to continue building out its technology with the $8 million funding round announced in March.
If Your Data Could Talk
While many mental health apps—Woebot and Moodnotes included—are based in psychology, it’s not a prerequisite for user interest.
Over 2 million people have downloaded Replika since the app launched in 2017. The inspiration for it came during a time of emotional need for founder Eugenia Kuyda. In 2015, her friend, Roman Mazurenko, died in a car accident. To keep his memory alive, she used data (in the form of their previous conversations) and AI to create a chatbot in his likeness—and after telling friends about it, saw a need.
The concept of Replika has since evolved. Today, Replika is designed to be like a trusted friend, by building a likeness of the user based on the data it collects from chat-based interactions. The more interactions, the better the emotional avatar. And users can shepherd it along, giving up-votes to effective responses and down-votes to responses that aren’t.
“[Replika] helps them process stuff that’s happening and keeps them company at work,” says Kuyda. While not based in CBT like WoeBot, Thriveport and others, the app accomplishes a similar goal: a safe place to process feelings and—sometimes—get some perspective.
Moverover, Kuyda says she sees these apps and bots as an early step to building human-like relationships with technology:
“I think there is a future where we’ll all have deeper connections and relationships with computers,” Kuyda says.
A Tool for Emotional Support
The use of data to provide insights is not a new concept: In fact, Thriveport co-founders Drew Erhardt, a clinical psychologist, and Edrick Dorian, a clinical and police psychologist, were inspired to create their company in the heat of the “quantified self” movement.
“Given that people build healthy habits in many domains of their lives, such as dietary and exercise routines, we believed that the same strategies could be applied to mental health,” says Erhardt. The hope is that by exposing both personal data and aggregate mental health data, users can get a better sense of their emotional state over long periods of time.
Erhardt adds that the smartphone is a great vehicle to utilize the tools of clinical psychology, as many people who would benefit from treatment lack not only the resources, but also the time to seek professional help.
“We really wanted to leverage digital technology to disseminate these ideas more widely,” Erhardt says.
While these apps have yet to be extensively tested, and early usage shows they’re far from replacing a real-life therapist, it seems they do provide some much-needed support. Taylor says the Moodnotes app came in particularly handy during the holidays:
“The aha moment was actually during Christmas,” he says. “Because the ‘Check your thought’ function at a family gathering really helped me out—let’s put it that way.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.