How to Improve Our Mental Health Thanks to Robots

Posted on: August 15th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

I’m going to begin this blog with a contentious statement – people are stupid! What I mean is that we do not always act in our best interest. We eat too much and get fat. We fail to exercise and our health suffers. We make poor professional decisions. We sabotage relationships with people we love. Given that people are foolish, illogical and flawed, why seek advice or help from a human? Why not instead go to something new and improved – like a robot? I am not going crazy, there is now such a thing as ‘digital mental healthcare’.

I recently read an article written by Dr Simon D’Alfonso and Associate Professor Reeva Lederman from the University of Melbourne on it.Mental healthcare use digital technologies (like apps and email and vodcasts). And the therapeutic treatment is not always delivered by human therapists but sometimes machines and robots – artificial intelligence. 

Would you share your secrets with a chatbot?

There are lots of digital mental health care options. You can already have therapy sessions with a human counsellor via e-mail, online chat or video-conferencing. But at the extreme end you can speak or engage with a computer-driven therapy agent – a chatbot. 

A chatbot is a computer program that mimics conversation with users via a chat interface – for example texting or email. The history of chatbots is linked to psychology. The first chatbot, Eliza, was programmed in 1966 to simulate a Rogerian psychotherapist. (Rogerian argument is a negotiating strategy in which you make points and the therapist logically puts the opposite perspective.) Eliza was a program that politely argued with you! 

Today the most sophisticated chatbots, like Woebot and Tess, can hold basic conversations with people and even create a bit of connectivity to you. Research on chatbots suggests that people may be more open and likely to share information, particularly on sensitive topics with a robot – maybe we can also trust them to keep our secrets!

How about getting a mobile app to make decisions for you?

There are other artificial intelligence options other than chatbots. There are web platforms and mobile apps that offer various forms of therapy content and exercises delivered in a digital format, without the presence of a human therapist.

There are even digital mental health groups like eOrygen, which have developed the Moderated Online Social Therapy (MOST) framework. The MOST web platform integrates Facebook-style social networking, psycho-educational therapy units, and a forum-like feature that provides a place to talk about and crowdsource solutions for your ‘mental health’ problems. But online support groups are usually meant to supplement rather than replace one-on-one counselling.

People trust online counsellors

The Melbourne University researchers looked at whether the MOST support group actually helped users. It seems that people can develop trust with an online support system. Some people responded to automated, personalised feedback from the computer, such as ‘draw on your strengths’. The computer identifies the personal strengths that person has entered when they signed up, and then suggests ways in which they can use those strengths. Some participants felt that the MOST system helped them grow stronger. According to the Melbourne University study, one person wrote that the automated system “allow[ed] me to be able to assess myself …. The fact that I could get information, learn more ideas. It gave me more focus, more ideas, more support than what I could have gotten.”

Will digital mental health services help you overcome addictions to the cyber world?

It is worth remembering that some people already have problematic relationships with their devices and social media. I suggest you watch the French film Who do you think I am,about a middle-aged woman pretending to be 24 years old online and having a cyber romance with a younger man.

Can people with cyber addictions also be treated by robots and computers? I think these people need an old-fashioned HUMAN counsellor however people who are addicted to their phones may be helped. Perhaps they can put an app or their phone that yells at them whenever they use their phone! Teenagers already have this device – it is called their parents.

Mental health apps

There are thousands of smartphone apps out there offering everything from help for everything from anxiety and stress through mindfulness techniques, meditation and mood tracking. Many mental health apps just want to improve your mood, for example Calm (guided meditation), Fabulous (habit tracking and goal setting) and Pillow (a sleep tracker) top the Apple Store’s health and fitness category.

Mental health software market is worth billions

The behavioral and mental health software market was worth $1.32 billion in 2017 and is expected to be more than double by 2026. The San Francisco-based Calm app, which uses meditation and music to help people sleep better, is valued at $1 billion. It was one of the first to launch.

The apps Reflect, Two Chairs and Kip in San Francisco were all started by young people who became angry when family members could not get the mental health support they needed.

“Mental health has two sides to it: the legacy system in private practices and other health systems, and then there’s the Silicon Valley-backed version, which is a lot of apps and a lot of tele-therapy and a lot of tech-forward approach,” Alex Katz, founder of Two Chairs told The Guardian newspaper. “What’s been clear to us from the beginning is there’s immense value in both.”

I still prefer talking to a person

I guess people under 30 think there is value in both person-to-person counselling and apps or chatbots. I think I’m old fashioned. Humans are not perfect. They make mistakes – robots and machines don’t. They do as they are programmed. If you go to a person for therapy you at least know that they have fallen short and can relate to what you are going through.

And you know the other great thing about talking to a person and not a computer, app or chatbot – a person can make you a coffee. That always makes me feel better!


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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