The problem with mental health robots

The problem with mental health robots

The experiences of Teresa Berkowitz with therapists had been random. “Some good, some helpful, some just a waste of time and money,” she says. When a childhood trauma was reactivated six years ago, instead of connecting with a flesh-and-blood human, Berkowitz – who is in his 50s and lives in the US state of Maine – downloaded Youper, an app mental health with an AI-powered chatbot therapist feature.

Once or twice a week, Berkowitz keeps a guided journal using the chatbot Youper, during which the bot prompts her to spot and change negative thought patterns as she writes down her thoughts. The app, she says, forces her to rethink what triggers her anxiety. “He’s available to you all the time,” she says. If triggered, she doesn’t have to wait a week for a therapy appointment.

Unlike their living and breathing counterparts, AI therapists can lend a robotic ear anytime, day or night. They are cheap or even free – an important factor considering cost is often one of the biggest barriers to accessing help. Additionally, some people feel more comfortable confessing their feelings to an unresponsive bot than to a person, research shows.

The most popular artificial intelligence therapists have millions of users. Yet their explosion in popularity coincides with a critical lack of resources. According to figures from the World Health Organization, there is a global median of 13 mental health workers per 100,000 people. In high-income countries, the number of mental health workers is more than 40 times higher than in low-income countries. And the anxiety and massive losses triggered by the pandemic have amplified the problem and widened that gap even further. An article published in The Lancet in November 2021, estimated that the pandemic had triggered 53 million additional cases of depression and 76 million cases of anxiety disorders worldwide. In a world where mental health resources are scarce, therapeutic robots are increasingly filling the void.

Take Wysa, for example. The “emotionally intelligent” AI chatbot was launched in 2016 and now has 3 million users. It’s being rolled out to teenagers in parts of London’s public school system, while the UK’s NHS is also running a randomized controlled trial to see if the app can help the millions of people on the (very long) list waiting for specialized help for mental illnesses. health conditions. The Singapore government has authorized the app in 2020 to provide free assistance to its people during the pandemic. And in June 2022, Wysa received Breakthrough Device Designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat depression, anxiety, and chronic musculoskeletal pain, with the intention of accelerating product testing and approval.

In a world where there aren’t enough services to meet demand, it’s probably a “good decision”, says Ilina Singh, professor of neuroscience and society at the University of Oxford. These chatbots could just be a new, accessible way to present information on how to deal with mental health issues that is already freely available on the internet. “For some people, this is going to be very helpful, and it’s great and we’re excited,” says John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts. “And for some people, it won’t.”

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