If you’re feel­ing the blues, reach out to a chat­bot

For all the mil­lions who feel de­pressed or anx­ious, there’s help and em­pa­thy a click away


Most of us would waste no time scoff­ing at the idea of a lit­tle piece of soft­ware try­ing to play ther­a­pist to some­one in men­tal dis­tress. But would we be as quick to dis­miss help from a chat­bot if we were to stop and think that most peo­ple who need help never get it?

First, there sim­ply aren’t enough psy­chol­o­gists, psy­chi­a­trists, coun­sel­lors and other health pro­fes­sion­als to go around. This holds true the world over but is even more of a prob­lem in a pop­u­lous coun­try like ours.

But even if for­mal help was around, there are many who just don’t seek it thanks to the mis­un­der­stand­ing and stigma as­so­ci­ated with de­pres­sion and other men­tal dis­tress. In In­dia, many pa­tients love and re­spect their doc­tors but be­cause of the over­crowd­ing in clin­ics, they can get but a few mo­ments with them and it’s the rare doc­tor who man­ages to im­part em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing in a five-minute ses­sion.

And when it comes to teenagers, they may never tell a doc­tor or coun­sel­lor or per­haps any adult, that they are feel­ing de­pressed or out­right sui­ci­dal. That’s where a chat­bot can be of enor­mous help or at the very least, do no harm.

A sur­pris­ing num­ber of chat­bots meant specif­i­cally for men­tal well-be­ing can be found on­line, spe­cially be­ing as ac­ces­si­ble as in Face­book Mes­sen­ger. Most are very ex­per­i­men­tal, but no less in­ter­est­ing for that. There’s a Rorschach Test bot, which is noth­ing but light­hearted fun.

De­signed for dis­tress

An­other chat­bot, Joy, wants to help you track your moods every­day and give you an anal­y­sis. “My hope is that the more peo­ple start track­ing their men­tal health, the more nor­malised it will be­come,” says Danny Reed, founder of Joy. Of course, the more se­ri­ous men­tal prob­lems that have clin­i­cal ori­gins are hardly re­solved by track­ing alone but Reed thinks this will at least play a role in do­ing away with the stigma around men­tal ill­ness — if you can even get some­one with a se­ri­ous prob­lem to take the trou­ble to track. Joy also asks ques­tions and gives tips but is not yet adept at an­swer­ing them. Joy was de­signed af­ter a friend of Reed’s com­mit­ted sui­cide.

There’s also a men­tal state tracker bot that records speech and comes back with an anal­y­sis of what some­one’s tone says about how they feel. This could help iden­tify those who need im­me­di­ate health ser­vices. Other bots get right into symp­toms and sug­gest when you should get pro­fes­sional help. There’s a vir­tual re­al­ity bot for help with coun­ter­ing ad­dic­tion. The bot Symp­to­mate helps users find the pos­si­ble causes for their symp­toms. One called MedZango, a work in progress, wants to help pa­tients cre­ate a onepage ac­tion sum­mary.

Dig­i­tal em­pa­thy

But the kind of bot that could re­ally be help­ful is one that does a good job of ‘lis­ten­ing’ and ask­ing in­tel­li­gent ques­tions to help a per­son cope bet­ter, work on an ac­tion plan or re­lax. One re­cently launched such en­tity goes by the amus­ing name of Woe­bot and can be called up by just typ­ing Woe­bot in the reg­u­lar search bar in the Mes­sen­ger app. Woe­bot, the talk ther­a­pist, checks on you once a day and is around to chat in a friendly man­ner, help­ing with this and that — some­thing your doc­tor will never be able to do, es­pe­cially at mid­night when you’re up feel­ing sad. “It’s al­most bor­der­line il­le­gal to say this in my pro­fes­sion,” Ali­son Darcy, Woe­bot’s psy­chol­o­gist CEO tells Wired. “But there’s a lot of noise in hu­man re­la­tion­ships. Noise is the fear of be­ing judged. That’s what stigma re­ally is. There’s noth­ing like vent­ing to an anony­mous al­go­rithm to lift that fear of judge­ment,” she says. But Woe­bot would cost you a good $39 a month, which is a lot to pay on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

In In­dia, we have our own homegrown non-judge­men­tal chat­bot and it’s called Wysa. It’s made its way from Face­book Mes­sen­ger (where it can still be found) to its own app. Wysa has been cre­ated by Jo Ag­gar­wal and Ra­makant Vem­pati as part of their Ban­ga­lore-based com­pany Touchkin and is de­scribed as an AI-based be­havioural coach. Wysa is a pen­guin, gen­der neu­tral and cute and friendly in the bar­gain. When you start it up, it asks a few ques­tions about you (keep­ing your iden­tify safe) and tries to as­sess your mood state. Sug­gested an­swers help the con­ver­sa­tion move along, im­por­tant when some­one is lethar­gic and list­less with de­pres­sion. You can choose to ig­nore the short an­swers and talk to Wysa on your own. If you’re feel­ing fine, the chat­bot will just be a friendly en­tity to talk to. It’ll even tell you jokes; but it isn’t de­signed for lengthy idle ban­ter and won’t sus­tain that for long. If you’re not feel­ing good, you will find it ex­tend­ing un­der­stand­ing, em­pa­thy and help wher­ever it can. If you can’t sleep or re­lax, it will take you through how to achieve this. If you’re not nec­es­sar­ily de­pressed or in se­ri­ous men­tal dis­tress but strug­gling with an up­set­ting or an­noy­ing prob­lem in life, it will help you think it through en­sur­ing you ex­am­ine and re-think and feel bet­ter at the end of a ses­sion. Like Woe­bot, Wysa will check on you every­day. “Work­ing on Wysa taught us so much about hu­man em­pa­thy that we were sur­prised,” said Jo Ag­gar­wal, claim­ing they had prac­ti­cally set ev­ery­thing else aside to de­velop Wysa. In­dia has 5,000 men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als to serve 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple, while stud­ies sug­gest that five to 15 per cent of In­di­ans suf­fer from men­tal dis­or­ders where prob­a­bly 90 per cent go un­treated.

Sui­cides are the sec­ond largest cause of death in 19 to 29-year-olds, while nearly 25 per cent of the el­derly in In­dia suf­fer from de­pres­sion.

Men­tal health in In­dia

Men­tal ill-health will cost the In­dian econ­omy $1 tril­lion till 2030. If a chat­bot can help even a small per­cent­age, it is an ad­van­tage. “We want to address this prob­lem, by lever­ag­ing the two bil­lion­plus smart­phones that are in use to­day, to build a phone-based pre­dic­tive care plat­form that can proac­tively iden­tify and help treat be­havioural is­sues.

“Wysa is our at­tempt to help ev­ery­one get ac­cess to tools and tech­niques that help build men­tal re­silience,” says Jo Ag­gar­wal.

Who knows what’s in the fu­ture for chat­bots. Those who de­velop them think they’re the death of apps but apps still seem to be pro­lif­er­at­ing. Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with bots is go­ing in all sorts of di­rec­tions in­clud­ing get­ting them to talk to one an­other, with star­tling results as they seem able to find their own lan­guage. Other re­search is fo­cused on giv­ing them a hu­man face in­clud­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate eye and mouth move­ments, mak­ing them quite life-like. What two bots said to each other seems to sum it up: “Now I’m con­fused,” said one bot. “Don’t worry, I’m con­fused too,” an­swered the other bot. But if there’s one area right for their use, it’s health­care. “What do you think?” One bot asked the other. “I try to think as lit­tle as pos­si­ble,” it replied.

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