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Can AI Be An Effective Therapist?

Can AI Be An Effective Therapist?

Over 450 million people are currently affected by mental or neurological disorders and it is estimated that one in four people will be affected by such condition in the coming years. With the rapid advancement in technology and its application in the medical field, researchers and medical practitioners are now looking at ways in which artificial intelligence and machine learning can be leveraged to detect early symptoms and potential cure for various mental illness.

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Over the years, considerable advancements have been made in this regard and AI-powered solutions such as NLP and even chatbots have been designed to understand the human mind.

We look at ways in which these solutions are helping psychiatrists and other mental health professionals deliver their job better and the potential harm associated with these technologies.

Virtual Therapist

Several startups have combined AI and virtual reality to create a virtual therapist that can interact with is patients in real-time. Quartet Health is one such startup which uses machine learning capabilities to identify patients with a mental health condition and provide a customised treatment plan based on their medical history and behavioural pattern. The platform partners with health plans and systems to facilitate access to personalised care and also enable virtual collaboration between patient and trained specialists.

In another niche use case Ellie, a virtual therapist was created by University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies and was funded by the US government to treat veterans suffering from PTSD. The virtual assistant could analyse facial expressions, head gestures, eye gaze direction and voice quality to identify behavioural indicators related to depression and post-trauma stress.

Disadvantage: In conditions like PTSD, where a person can be overwhelmed by symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, the need for personal assistance and direct human intervention is more. While the technology can ensure a certain degree of anonymity, it will fail to replace human intervention which is crucial for a person in distress.

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The profession involves advising individuals and families at the risk of a genetic disorder by helping them understand the condition better and provide them with the much need mental support. Increasingly, more people are seeking the help of these professionals to better understand the genetic composition to predict whether they are likely to develop conditions like anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Health practitioners and startups like Clear Genetics and OptraGURU have already developed AI software which can provide the same services as that of a genetic counsellor. AI has been leveraged in genome sequencing to spot disease marker in patients and even to make a personalised drug treatment plan for patients.

Disadvantage: While cost reduction has been associated with the technology, the biggest threat that is likely to occur is that of hacking and data theft. Healthcare data breaches have been occurring and crucial information like a patient’s medical history and other personally identifiable data can be grossly misused. Since AI systems are prone to vulnerabilities, it can also lead to inaccurate disease detection and false recommendation of drugs.

Chatbots For Depression

As the gap between the availability of mental health professional and the cost of each therapy session keeps increasing, the demand for digitised healthcare solutions has increased steadfastly. Even in their low point, more and more people are picking app experience over the real therapy session.

Due to this burgeoning demand, India and UK-based healthcare startup, Touchskin introduced Wysa, its AI-powered chatbot. The app has over half a million downloads and provides its users with features like guided and unguided meditation, reminders via message and progress tracking.

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Yet another popular name is Woebot, a chatbot that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tools for depression. The app sends over a million messages per week to help its users deal with issues related to depression, anxiety, relationship problems, procrastination, loneliness, grief, addiction, pain management and more.

The app was rated among the best app for anyone with anxiety. In a testimonial about the app in their website, one of its users writes, “In my first session with Woebot, I found it immediately helpful…addressing my anxiety without another human’s help felt freeing.”  

Disadvantage: Though the biggest advantage attributed to these apps is the instant availability of someone to talk with you, the biggest drawback it faces is the lack of human touch. “Sorry, this is just way too weird for me. I feel like I’m talking to a human who I don’t know and it’s making me very anxious and paranoid. It would be cool if it really is a human typing, but I would have to get to know that person first. Just not my type,” a Wysa user remarked.


While technology has the potential to disrupt and shape the future of precision healthcare, its application in the field of mental health and psychology needs to be carefully looked at. Even though machines and algorithms can mimic human emotions in speech and visual format, it is a long road ahead before completely relying on AI and ML capabilities in a field like psychological counselling, which require more human intervention than machine.

With machine learning algorithms being more susceptible to biases in the form of racist and sexist remarks, key industry players need to ensure robustness in their AI system before bringing it out to the market. Finally, companies have a bigger responsibility for ensuring the safety and security of patients’ personal data.

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