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The Therapist In My Pocket: Mental Health Conversational Agents (2020)

Curator: Hannah Bennett | University of Florida | September 2020
Collection Editor: Isabel Pedersen
Acquisitions Editor: Laura Gonzales
Collection Archivist: Sharon Caldwell

Can conversational agents or chatbots serve as mental health therapists? AI Agents are proposed as feasible components for preventive mental health care. This collection aims to illustrate the development of these tools, potential concerns about their usage in mental health care, and their effectiveness.

Conversational agents are not new. ELIZA is a pioneer in the field, made in 1966 and modeled with psychotherapy in mind. Today, users can still talk to ELIZA through current browsers. ELIZA has many descendants in mental health apps that are designed and trained to respond in ways that help conversation partners. These assistive technologies offer a range of capabilities. They might be sophisticated learning AI agents that are designed with personalities to be used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or they might be simple mood trackers and wellness reminder apps.

In traditional therapy, the information that a patient shares is confidential. When engaging with mental health chatbots, users risk exposing their private information. Though these applications and tools are helpful, users have had reasonable concerns about how their information is being protected.

There is also concern about their effectiveness. A study from University of Oxford reviewed several different services and found that “patients” don’t receive the same level of tailored care as they would from a real-life therapist. Another study from Frontiers in Psychology used a method combining group therapy with their online monitoring system with good results, suggesting that certain factors, like social engagement, must be present in these mental health apps when users require more attentive care. Overall, the benefits are more preventative and maintenance oriented. The increased use of these tools can help destigmatize mental health treatment.

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