How Mental Health Chatbots Are Helping Us Cope With Coronavirus
How Mental Health Chatbots Are Helping Us Cope With Coronavirus
While much of the focus around chatbots is in the customer service role, they also play a key part in helping people maintain their wellbeing, producing a positive outlook and engaging in other aspects of our health. During lockdown, the ability to talk to anyone, even a mental health chatbot about our troubles has proven to be a lifesaver.
There is a lot of talk in the press and on social media that it is better to talk to someone about our problems than suffer in silence, especially during Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 and similar efforts. But who can people turn to, especially under the current restrictions? Mental health chatbots are a fast-growing segment in the bot market, with plenty arriving recently to help cater for those in lockdown during the Coronavirus who are unable to access their usual health systems.
Not only are the bots innately helpful, but the stories that emerge from encounters help spread the word and encourage others to seek help from these digital AI mental health chatbots and solutions. For example, a BBC story in January, “A chatbot pulled me out of a 'really dark place'” was spread widely among individuals as a beacon of hope and across the health industry as an alert that things are changing in the profession.
It helped a patient by suggesting simple goals "Hey, why don't we make a goal?" the chatbot texted her on 10 September. She only had to paint her toenails for a start, but this simple task combined with the chatbot's funny and friendly personality and 24/7 presence, encouraged her progressively to get more tasks accomplished.”
In the smartphone and smart device era, the range of sensors to measure our health or responses is growing fast and it won’t be long before these apps, using AI, can better detect stress levels and patterns that can lead to people needing help, and being more proactive in providing it.
And, for now, these bots might operate in the realm of healthcare, charities or for individuals, but soon enterprises could monitor worker wellbeing through regular chats with a smart bot that can provide and help and information in a confidential manner.
Assessing the usability of a chatbot for mental health care
That story focuses on Vivibot, a mental health bot for cancer survivors, but there are plenty more examples focused on different niches or general mental wellbeing that use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other approaches.
Woebot, Wysa and others are reviewed in a Healthline article which suggests some of the pros and cons of the various approaches and the limitations of chatbots, such as heavily scripted responses, and limited interest in what the user actually has to say.
A strong example of a mental health chatbot provides conversations, not a list of options. It should also provide plenty of links to further support or reading, while providing the sense that any person is not alone. They should also learn from previous conversations (while protecting privacy) to leverage the huge need and interest in the bots. For example, Wysa has hit almost two million downloads globally due to the dramatic rise in stress and anxiety over personal and work issues during and beyond the COVID-19 lockdown. Our own information chatbot about the coronavirus, which we launched on Facebook's Messenger, exchanged 30 million messages in a month.
Mental health chatbot technology
Recommended by several NHS trusts, Wysa is free to use and they also provide a coaching service, which many of the apps do as part of the service and providing a revenue stream for developers. These need to be beneficial to the user and go beyond the life-coach features that many apps offer to deliver something specific and nuanced.
For health industry teams looking to build a bot, there are plenty of lessons to be learned, but the trick will be using artificial intelligence to understand what the user wants to hear and needs to hear. Deep learning and search can find the best information and deliver it in a way that will provide a lasting benefit, and can provide actionable goals based on the feedback rather than generic advice.
Bots also need to be smart enough to spot someone in serious distress, based on their words or tone of voice. They should provide a link to clinical support or a callback feature from a medical professional, charity advisor or similar who can provide help.
And, it goes without saying that these bots should put privacy, confidentiality and security at the top of the development agenda. Imagine a hacker’s delight at finding a list of clients with specific conditions that could make them more prone to phishing or other types of attack, or make them more malleable to social media approaches that could lead to extortion in the guise of a soul mate.
Chatbots Providing Help, Here and Now
With their 24/7 presence, bots are available whenever people are at their lowest point, often when human support isn’t available. They can also focus on the specific triggers of ill-health, helping people before they get too low.
Take Mitsuku, the chatbot that aims to support lonely people, often the trigger for a slide into mental health problems. “Mitsuku is equipped with more than 80 billion conversation logs, a data arsenal that has helped her become five-times winner of the prestigious Loebner Prize for chatbot developers.”
Around the world, loneliness is a massive issue, with Japan’s aging lonely population a huge problem - despite the country’s high-tech traditions - notable for the rise in “kodokushi” — people facing a solitary death at home, which may go unnoticed for days or even weeks because no one is there to check on them.
Mitsuku is a western bot that along with virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, and physical robots to provide mobility and practical support are part of an army of technology dealing with the issue of elder care. People can talk to their smart home devices and have a conversation, play simple games or have them read books, news or quizzes to help keep them mentally active.
Physical robots can do the fetching and carrying, intricate tasks or help move people who have mobility issues. While these bots started out as purely practical devices, they are adding improved social interactions to provide mental contact and engagement to keep people engaged in a far broader sense than the customer service version of the term.
Combine these services and the future support systems for future elder generations looks brighter, but their roots are helping people of all ages today.
Brighter Mental Health With Bots
While chatbots and robots will struggle to provide affinity with people for some generations to come, they are the starting point of a wave of technologies that can help support anyone with a mental health issue, or even identify it at an early point.
And as artificial general intelligence (AGI) moves from the sci-fi horizon to something that could be achievable in smart devices, bots will find ways of helping people further, understanding their needs better and delivering more personalised and practical advice. Virtual concierges and permanent personal assistants will remember previous conversations, our good and bad days, and what might trigger a bout of depression or melancholy - and know what to do about it.
But, for now, they can help play a role in suicide prevention, personal wellbeing and it won’t be too long until an AI can ask “hello, how are you feeling?” And sound likes it means it, and be able to perform meaningful actions based on the response.