Are the Benefits of AI for Mental Health Care Worth the Risk?

Published on: 19 Feb 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
ai for mental health care

Technology has caused some issues for our mental health. When you’re comparing yourself to others on social media or struggling with work-life balance under an avalanche of emails, it doesn’t feel like the machines are on our side. But researchers are hoping to change that. They’re hopeful that innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) will help improve mental health around the world.

The global statistics for depression and anxiety are cause for alarm. In the most recent estimates, 7.1% of people suffer from those conditions and the rate is even higher when you include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders. This means that 792 million people worldwide need psychological support — demand which will be no easy feat to supply.

Some of the top barriers to support include a shortage of mental health professionals, long wait lists, stigma, and cost. This is where AI could be of help. By programming apps and robots to learn from human data, the benefits of therapy could reach those who wouldn’t normally have access to therapy. Although scientists are just at the beginning stage of exploring artificial intelligence as a viable therapy option — and it’s not free of issues — the opportunity to reach underserved communities is exciting.

What Does AI Therapy Look Like?

Chatbots are the most common form of AI therapy. You might not be talking to a real human, but the psychological support should feel real. These apps work like a “virtual psychotherapist” that helps users identify their emotions and thought patterns. Then, the bot uses counselling techniques to build up the user’s coping skills. For example, the bot will analyze your text for inaccurate perceptions of reality (“cognitive distortions”) and explain why your thinking might not be on the right track.

Benefits of chatbots and avatars

Studies show that these bots decrease symptoms of depression better than self-help books, but they are not intended to replace human therapists. Instead, companies behind apps like Wysa, Woebot, and Tess state that they’re additional resources for clients. However, an interesting study by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency found that clients are more likely to open up when they believe they’re only receiving computer generated responses. It’s a device that’s at your fingertips 24/7, without human judgement.

Similar to chatbots, avatars are being tested for treating schizophrenia. The computer-generated faces help someone suffering from auditory verbal hallucinations because they can see a representation of that voice. It’s not entirely understood why, but this treatment has helped patients lower their anxiety and reluctance to take prescribed medication. Additionally, avatar coaches can be used to encourage people who are battling fears in exposure therapy. Afraid of big social gatherings, heights or spiders? A life-like face on a screen can help cheer you on and, like chatbots, you don’t have to tell anyone your secrets.

Lastly, AI robots are finding their way into homes and clinics. Cuddly and animal-like, sometimes equipped with speech, these robots provide therapeutic interaction to isolated and depressed groups. Paro, a harp seal, and eBear are two examples of fuzzy companions that have been proven to lower stress, loneliness, and agitation. They’re especially popular for elderly people or those suffering from dementia. A more education class of AI robots have been developed for children with autism. These robots help improve social skills such as facial recognition and appropriate gaze response.

Concerns About AI Therapy

Because AI technology and its application to psychotherapy is still very new, the programs have not been thoroughly tested. Some researchers are wary of its use because the data is based on human data, which is subject to human error. Basically, machines have to learn from something — in this case, us — before they take off and do their own thing. If they’ve been programmed with faulty data, they’ll never correct themselves. As Dr. Gregory Simon at Seattle’s Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute writes, “Humans explore, decide, experience, and evaluate. Machines simply aggregate and efficiently manipulate the intelligence that humans have created or discovered.”

Untimely glitches

There’s also the issue that technology can glitch or stop working. The benefits of having a bot on-call pale compared when compared with a bot disappearing without warning when someone is in need. Without a real person on the other end of technology, how will we know whether the messages are being received correctly? We’re all accustomed to the frustration that can come with phones and computers from time to time, but will the psychological effects be more dire if it the technology conks out when you need it the most?

Considering the staggering crisis of poor mental health around the world, AI presents a compelling solution. At-risk demographics could be targeted with cheap and useful technology support programs. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to therapy with a trained professional, but unfortunately that’s just not the case. Despite the issues with AI therapy, and though it’s only in its infancy, it’s undoubtedly a positive step towards making sure that everyone, everywhere has something to interact with when times are tough.

And, until AI therapy becomes a practical, safe, and viable solution, remember that Talkspace employs thousands of highly qualified, licensed therapists each with at least Master’s Degree and 3000+ hours of clinical supervision. Talkspace therapists are standing by to listen empathetically, help you reach your goals, and deal with whatever challenges you may be struggling with.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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