• Shawn Wilson, Ph.D.

Chatbot therapy: Latest integration of technology and therapy

Photo by Derick Anies on Unsplash

There are many issues with standard therapy including the high cost and lack of accessibility for many people. Chatbot therapy is the latest attempt to address these concerns by combining technology and mental health. Essentially chatbot therapy is when a person is talking to a robot who provides help with mental health. Typically this is done through a phone app with chat so that both the client and the robot type their responses.

A recent article by the Washington Post describes one of these chatbot apps called Woebot. There are many different chatbot apps, although Woebot is reportedly one of the most popular of these apps. According to the creators of Woebot, one of the advantages of chatbot therapy is that individuals can talk about deeply personal things without fearing judgment from the robot. Other advantages include the apps being easy to use, available anywhere a person has a phone, and relative to in-person therapy, cost-effective.

Now the creators of Woebot are mindful of not calling chatbot therapy a replacement for individual therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, it will be curious as the technology develops if chatbot therapy could ever replace traditional CBT.

The question then is, do these chatbot therapy applications work? A recent study was conducted to examine the difference of Woebot versus being provided an ebook in reducing anxiety and depression with college students. Results of the study found that the Woebot was better at reducing depressive symptoms compared to the informational control, although there was no difference found in terms of anxiety symptoms. This study provides some support that chatbot therapy can be beneficial, although to say that more research needs to be done is an understatement.

Control groups that are asked to read a book on their own typically do worse than groups that are provided individual therapy, although they do typically perform better than no intervention at all. However, based on this study we cannot be sure that Woebot is better than no intervention based on the lack of a waitlist or no treatment group. In addition, there is no clear indication how Woebot performs in comparison with treatment. While Woebot may be beneficial in helping support those in treatment already, it may have the inadvertent effect of making some clients less likely to pursue individual therapy as they believe they are currently obtaining the help that they need with the application.

There are more unanswered than answered questions at this point. However, as technology continues to grow and develop, it would be naive to believe that chatbot therapy will not also grow and develop. There are many possible positive benefits from chatbot therapy, although there is also the potential for chatbot therapy to be used to make money without a primary focus on helping the clients. Hopefully more research can be conducted with research institutions to better clarify the benefits and downsides of this new technology. Regardless of what is found, it is always exciting when technology and psychology push each other to evolve and stay current with modern society.

News article link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/12/03/the-woebot-will-see-you-now-the-rise-of-chatbot-therapy/

Research article link: https://mental.jmir.org/2017/2/e19/

The Clinically Relevant Insights Blog, part of ShawnWilsonPhD.com, shares news and research regarding psychology and wellness.

#technology #chatbottherapy #cellphone #CBT

© 2020 by Shawn Wilson