According to The National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2015. If not treated effectively, depression can become a chronic disease. Medication and therapy are two approaches to treating depression, but many people don’t have access to treatment, and for those who do, the stigma and the cost are barriers to seeking help. Now a company has developed an AI (artificial intelligence) chatbot whose goal is to provide mental health support.
Bangalore, India startup Touchkin has created Wysa, “a compassionate AI chatbot for behavioral health.” (A chatbot is a computer program powered by artificial intelligence that can mimic conversation. The user interacts via a text chat interface.) The chatbot was developed in collaboration with researchers from Columbia and Cambridge, and a scientific advisory board that includes global mental health experts. According to the company’s website, Wysa uses smartphone sensors to remotely identify when a user reduces their activity, is not sleeping well, or is at risk of depression. The bot uses evidence-based cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT) approved by professional practicing counselors and Touchkin’s scientific advisory board to guide empathetic conversations and engage users through chat. The description of Wysa on the Google Play app store says the emotionally intelligent bot can react to the emotions the user expresses using CBT, meditation, breathing, yoga, motivational interviewing, and micro-actions to help with mental resilience skills and improved mood. Those who use bots like this of course want to be sure there are strict privacy controls in place, and there are. Users can talk to Wysa anonymously and the data is not traceable. Data is encrypted in transmission and sessions can be password protected.
If therapy-like services can be delivered inexpensively and without stigma, it could help millions, but it’s not without its limitations. While the demand is certainly there for an easy to use technology that can help users improve their mental health anonymously, the risk is that those who need more help than a chatbot can provide may not seek it. That said, Wysa’s goal of providing access to clinically validated mental health support to anyone who needs it straight from a smartphone is laudable.