The rise of mental health chatbots

Way back in the 60s, one of the first-ever chatbots (known as ELIZA) ran a script known as DOCTOR. This made her respond to messages as though she were a psychotherapist. Though the technology was somewhat crude, ELIZA represented the first use of chatbots as a mental health resource.

Today, mental health chatbots are emerging on a much bigger, more advanced level.  Bot “therapists” like Vivibot, Flow, Woebot and dozens more are proving surprisingly helpful in improving the wellbeing of service users.

In the process, they’re changing the way we think about chatbots and the ways they might benefit our daily lives. Here’s a closer look at the rise of mental health chatbots.


The rise of chatbots

Chatbots are programs that interact with users via two-way conversation. That is, they allow applications and web services to ‘chat’ to users, through a conversational interface. And recent advances in AI mean that chatbots are rapidly rising in use, function and popularity.

Nowadays, chatbots most commonly appear in customer service functions. They answer FAQs, guide users through websites, and act in place of webforms.

But as the technology behind them shifts from basic logic to complex AI, chatbots are finding new uses. For example, they’re helping people manage their finances or assisting with medical diagnoses. And they’re also finding their footing in mental health support.


What do mental health chatbots do?

Mental health chatbots provide a supportive presence to service users, engaging them with conversation at times when they feel low. Some chatbots engage passively, replying only when users reach out. Others can actively engage users that are on their site or have downloaded an app. So, they’ll start conversations with users to check in with them.

Mental health chatbots might simply provide a friendly ear. A place to air concerns, worries, intrusive thoughts or engage in ‘therapeutic’ small talk. They can use this conversational input to detect the mood of the service user and respond with empathy.

Some chatbots can provide guidance or advice to help users challenge their negative thoughts. Modelling tactics from behavioural therapy, they can encourage users to accept their emotions. They’ll offer relevant tools and resources to help users find healthy coping strategies. (Spanning anything from meditation, to mental exercises, to self-help, etc.)

Elsewhere, mental health chatbots are helping users keep track of their moods, progress and thoughts. A bit like a conversational diary. This might later highlight trends or triggers that impact the wellbeing of the service user.


Who do they help?

Mental health chatbots are most commonly used to support people with depressive symptoms or clinical anxiety. Though they can’t treat these disorders directly, they can offer ‘always-on’ alleviating help.

There are also chatbots emerging that support those with autism. (Particularly children.) These chatbots are designed to help service users develop their social skills. By providing a safe place to practice, they help users feel more confident when they chat with others.


Why mental health chatbots are on the rise

So, why are mental health chatbots on the rise?

First, there’s the rise of chatbot technology in general. With chatbots settling into customer service roles, people are growing used to interacting with them. And chatbots are also getting smarter and more capable of interacting with us, thanks to machine learning and natural language processing. Inevitably, then, people are looking for new ways to use them.

Next, couple this bot upswing with the rise in mental health awareness. More people are seeking help with their mental wellbeing. This puts a strain on the supply of qualified therapists. As a result, patients often undergo an agonising wait before they receive the professional help they’re seeking. Chatbots can ease this strain.

Then, beyond these rising trends lies the fundamental accessibility of bot support. Simply, mental health chatbots present a low-barrier way to reach out for what can be a formidable – even life-threatening – problem.


A low-barrier option

A chatbot provides support from anywhere with an internet connection — be it out and about or at home. So, chatbots allow people to access mental health support from the comfort and safety of their own home. (Rather than facing the potentially daunting task of going to an unfamiliar office.)

Plus, chatbots use a familiar channel of communication. People like chatting in real-time through texts and instant messaging. Engaging with a chatbot then, feels easy rather than onerous.

Chatbots also offer 24/7 functionality. So, whether it’s late night, early morning, or anywhere in between, the bot is ready to listen and help.

Mental health chatbots are no-commitment, too. If a user changes their mind and isn’t ready to talk, they aren’t under pressure to keep an appointment. They can simply delete the app or click away from the website.

Then there’s the fact that chatbots aren’t people. They’re incapable of judging you. This means that service users can reach out, without fear of being misunderstood or judged.


Limitations

For all their benefits, it is important to remember the limitations of mental health chatbots. For example, they only mimic understanding, they don’t truly understand. This can, on occasion, cause friction as the chatbot makes mistakes.

Further, chatbots have failed to recognise and report instances of users in crisis. A report is necessary after reports of abuse, or when a patient poses a threat to themselves or others. Chatbots simply aren’t designed for dealing with crises.

Ultimately, talking to a chatbot can be a helpful stepping-stone or timely motivation, but it’s not going to displace the need for human interaction. Mental health chatbots are good for providing little boosts, but they can’t replace human therapists and help.


Paving the way

These limitations aside, mental health chatbots are proving a nascent technology. That is, they’re only coming into existence, and they’re already displaying massive future potential.

Accessibility and early intervention in mental healthcare is crucial. Here, chatbots have filled a clear and critical gap that is already proving life-changing for service users.

Looking further ahead, mental health chatbots also showcase the transferable strengths of chatbot technology. They show how it’s possible to leverage conversational AI in new ways. So, mental health chatbots aren’t just making waves in the healthcare scene. They’re also paving the way for more innovative and beneficial uses of chatbot technology in all walks of life.


Useful links

The emergence and diversification of the financial chatbot

The falsity of the chatbot vs live chat debate

The WhosOn bot platform