Your Virtual Therapist Will See You Now

Take a seat on the virtual couch

Key Takeaways

  • With the coronavirus pandemic causing mental health issues but making it harder to get to see a therapist in person, some companies are offering virtual therapy sessions through chatbots. 
  • The app Serenity claims to use science-based therapeutic techniques to aid users.
  • But some skeptics say that such AI-powered bots are unlikely to help users as much as a real therapist, and could even do harm.
Someone having a virtual appointment with a therapist that could just be a chatbot.
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Mental health issues have become a growing problem during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting some companies to offer virtual therapists to fill in for overwhelmed human professionals. 

A range of chatbots will happily discuss your innermost thoughts and fears all day long. The Serenity app, for example, claims to use science-based therapeutic techniques. Some experts say that such AI (artificial intelligence)-powered bots are unlikely to help as much as a real therapist, and could even do harm. But proponents claim that such services can be helpful at a time when speaking to a therapist in person can be difficult due to social distancing measures. 

"Today, we’re able to augment the traditional therapy experience with conversational agents," Dr. Nirav R. Shah, the chief medical officer of Serenity-developer, said in an email interview.

"By doing this, we get the benefit of empathy, understanding, compassion, and creativity from a human caregiver, paired with the empiric brain of AI to advance care using evidence-based guidelines, standardized surveys, and customized and privacy-preserving technology that leads to continuous progress between clinician visits. This combination allows us to scale a limited resource—relative to the need, human clinicians are in very short supply for mental health."

"This is better than no help at all, making it greatly beneficial for people struggling and in a difficult place in life."

Tracking Moods and More

Serenity works by using a virtual therapist that aims to make users become conscious of the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions, and how this connection may be preventing you from achieving good mental well-being. It also helps you track changes in your mood over time as you complete regular check-ins, and is intended to help you identify and address issues early on before they become a serious problem.

"On average, people with new symptoms of anxiety or depression wait several weeks to be diagnosed and get help," Shah said. "A structured, evidence-based tool (like Serenity) can shorten that triage to minutes. It amplifies a clinician’s impact by filling in care gaps and taking over repetitive tasks to return time to the clinician to focus on providing personalized care."

Another popular virtual tool that’s used for therapy is Woebot, a chatbot providing therapy for individuals. The company says its bot exchanges 4.7 million messages with people per week.

Someone wearing a VR headset laying on a couch reminiscent of a psychiatrist's office.
selimaksan / Getty Images

"In the last decade alone, we’ve seen a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders worldwide," according to Woebot’s website.

"More than 264 million people of all ages and geographies suffer from depression, while one in five of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition. Alcohol abuse kills 3 million people every year; 31 million who use drugs suffer from substance abuse disorders." 

Cheaper Yes, But Better?

One of virtual therapy’s biggest benefits is that it's often less expensive than the kind that uses humans, said psychotherapist Danielle Wayne. "Often these modalities are easier for people to access, which goes hand-in-hand with being more affordable," she added.

"This is better than no help at all, making it greatly beneficial for people struggling and in a difficult place in life."

But some experts are skeptical about replacing talk therapy with artificial intelligence. It’s not clear whether such therapy works in the real world versus small, academic studies, Adam Chekroud, a psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine, said in an email interview.

"The risk of harm is high," Chekroud added. "People have real issues, and suicide/self-harm is a very real consequence of either withholding treatment or delivering ineffective treatment. I think many people underestimate this risk."

"In the last decade alone, we’ve seen a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders worldwide."

Privacy is another issue. "Health-related data that's collected from people can be used inappropriately and cause harm," David D. Luxton, a psychiatry professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in an email interview.

"Examples include dishonest use by a company (unauthorized sharing of private health data), and during a data breach or hack."

Users of virtual therapy need to be careful where their data ends up, experts say. The companies that provide virtual therapy could be recording the conversations, Reid Blackman, the founder of the ethics consulting company VIRTUE, said in an email interview.

"Are they using voice data to train AI? Using that info to sell to advertisers (pharmaceutical companies)? How secure is that data from hackers? Would the company release the data (e.g., transcripts, video recordings) to a legal authority, or is it protected by doctor/patient confidentiality?" Blackman said. "Another issue is about responsibility or accountability: if the AI therapist gives bad advice and the person commits suicide, who is accountable?"

One drawback of AI-powered therapy is that it doesn't have the same human connection as working with a therapist. "This connection is the most powerful part of therapy, and it's what determines how much progress someone will make in therapy," Wayne said.

"Try as a program might, it's not human, and it can't make that same connection. If you're looking for proof that we need human connection, you only need to look at how hard it's been to social distance over this last year. If building connection was easy, this last year wouldn't have been as tough."  

Someone having a therapy sessions over video call with a live therapist.
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The fact that a virtual therapist isn’t human can be seen as either a positive or a negative, Luxton said. On the one hand, a virtual therapist means the loss of a real human connection, he pointed out, adding "some data suggest that people may prefer to share information with a virtual (software) care provider [rather] than a human one."

AI to Guide Human Therapists

Chatbots aren’t the only way technology is changing therapy. Artificial intelligence also can be used behind the scenes in web-based or mobile app-based treatments, guiding the user and collecting and analyzing relevant data to inform treatment, Luxton said.

"There's a big spectrum of innovation going on though—some are trying to completely eliminate the need for therapists and instead try and train robots to deliver the therapy somehow," Chekroud said.

"On the other end of the spectrum, there are groups who are developing technology that makes the therapists work faster or work smarter (generally be more efficient), but not trying to replace the therapist. That latter example may also use AI in parts of the technology that they develop."

It’s clear there’s an urgent need for more access to mental health professionals during the pandemic. New software tools like chatbots could help. But artificial intelligence won’t be replacing the human connection of a real therapist.

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