Chatbot therapist aims to give people more mental health care resources

Posted at 10:16 PM, Oct 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-11 16:02:54-04

DENVER -- There is a new resource on the market bringing together psychology and artificial intelligence. Experts have teamed up to create Woebot, a therapy chatbot that's just a text away.

People from all over the world, in more than 130 countries text it daily.

Doctor Alison Darcy is the CEO of Woebot Labs and one of the clinical psychologists that helped create it.

"It's really like a guide rather than a therapist who helps you through the exercises of thinking about your mood and your thinking and the context in which those things are happening," said Darcy.

One of the main reasons behind Woebot, she says, is the limited access to mental health care, sometimes the cost, and most importantly: the stigma.

Darcy says there is a major need to fill the gap between in-person therapy and the self-help aisle.

"Woebot has managed to see more people in his first day of being released than any clinician would have been able to see in it's lifetime," she said.

Woebot works through Facebook Messenger. It asks you a series of questions, and you either hit the preprogrammed response or type in your answer. It uses artificial intelligence to make it conversational and a specific tool: cognitive behavioral therapy.

Dustin Shaver, Psy.D., is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital. He put Woebot to the test.

"If I had a patient that was anxious and I could only see them every couple of weeks, this could be not bad," said Shaver.

He does have one worry though:

"My fear is that somebody's going to use this solely and then if they do get too severe, and then not see somebody and that's the danger zone," he said.

Darcy pointed out that from the beginning, chatbot makes the user aware it is not a real person and not meant to replace therapy, but add to it.

Bottom line, it's meant to address the bigger issue:

"Mental health is in global crisis and Woebot is this tiny step towards trying to make it less urgent and trying to get good help to people who need it," said Darcy.

Woebot programmers are working on creating an app separate of Facebook Messenger. It is free for the first two weeks and then costs $39 a month after that. 

The creators say a clinical study showed Woebot can help decrease signs of depression. That data was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Mental Health.