There is no doubt that natural language processing right now is seeing huge innovation and undoubtedly AI will become incredibly advanced. Speaking of advanced, relational agent, affectionately known as Woebot can administer “digital therapies based on clinically valid therapies, which includes: cognitive behaviour therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy which establishes a therapeutic bond with users.” This clever chat bot is trained in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that aims to help you understand emotional difficulties including anxiety and depression.

The accessibility of Woebot on a global scale, is really transformative in regards to mental health, with Woebot being available for free on the app store. “Woebot is there for you in that moment of need whatever time it is and will guide you through CBT in that moment.” There is also a huge self-care aspect to Woebot which Alison Darcy confirms “can help users with mental health conditions and can even help users who are not diagnosed but are suffering with negative thoughts.”

“We would never say Woebot is always going to be sufficient in every case but we think it could be helpful and it rests well alongside other options.”

What was the inspiration behind Woebot?

Dr Alison Darcy: “Woebot was launched in 2017. I’ve been a clinical scientist and I was working in Stanford and building treatments and my research career was always about challenging problems of access regarding mental health support, really broadly defined, beyond just the typical stuff that people think about like: costs and the supply of therapists but also about making therapy less intimidating as well as addressing why are our current structures and services are failing to diagnose certain groups and underserving groups. The number of people suffering from mental health problems was really exploding and it became really clear to me that we needed some big innovation and something that is really scalable.”

“I was very inspired by a lot of this neurocognitive literature that suggested that young people in particular are able to think differently when they are in a game environment and actually that is true of therapy too, so at first we were developing a game but that was not compelling enough so, we built a prototype of Woebot and could immediately see that people were responding to it really differently.”

How can relational technology be used to solve the mental health crisis?

A.D: “What was interesting is that we found out something extraordinary, along the lines of, that although we launched in 2017, around 40 percent of our user base came back during the pandemic, even if they had used Woebot years before, which was very humbling as it does suggest that it is something that could help them. That to me speaks of a relationship of sorts, Woebot is something that respects me and that doesn’t judge me and that shows up consistently.”

“Woebot can detect you in a crisis situation and help you to get help, Woebot detects crisis language which is 99 percent effective. It is about calling out the limitations of Woebot, let’s talk about where you should get help. When we are in a natural partnership with the health system then that is a natural place to divert them to their local resources.”

Is human connection essential?

A.D: “Although Woebot works best alongside therapy, there is data to support that people may feel more comfortable speaking with Woebot rather than speaking to a therapist, even those who can access mental health support do not always come forward so the app is a step in the right direction.”

“In the US, a lot of Universities have to take a temperature of the mental health of their students every year and I saw the data for Stanford and it was staggering; 50 percent of the student population were having symptoms so sever of anxiety or depression that they could not function and that to me is so unacceptable.”

“Universities have set up service but people are not accessing them which suggests to me that people need something in between. It is so intimidating for some people especially young men or people who are marginalised for any reason to speak to a therapist. Stigma is the overriding reason; we have come to understand that stigma is just so prevalent, and all the social cultural baggage that comes with it and for those people that fall into those categories which have implicit bias they are facing that every time they see another person.”

How will Woebot evolve?

A.D: “Right now, the more structured programme is being distributed through our health system partners so in the US those systems distribute Woebot to their patients, unfortunately, that is not available on the app store. You will however, see more features and more functionality and we are also exploring a translation to Spanish, which will be our first European language, we have started working on how that would look but it is a complex process. There is such a huge need around the world so we would love to make the app cater to different languages in the future.”

For more information about Woebot Health please see https://woebothealth.com/ and download the app today if you are in need of some mental health support.