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– Enhancing Mental Wellbeing with Artificial Intelligence Bot Support

A growing number of AI chatbots are being pitched as a way to address the recent mental health cris…

WASHINGTON (AP) — Upon downloading the mental health chatbot Earkick, users are welcomed by a panda sporting a bandana, reminiscent of a character from a children’s cartoon.

Engaging with the chatbot about stress prompts the generation of comforting and supportive responses typically provided by therapists. The chatbot may suggest guided breathing exercises, techniques to reframe negative thoughts, or tips for managing tension.

While Earkick follows a well-established method utilized by professionals, co-leader Karin Andrea Stephan emphasizes that it should not be viewed as a form of treatment.

“We are fine with being referred to as a form of therapy, but we prefer not to promote ourselves in that manner,” explains Stephan, a former professional musician and self-professed serial entrepreneur. “It’s just not the image we want to convey.”

The debate over whether these AI-powered chatbots are offering mental health services or simply serving as a new type of self-help resource is crucial to the evolving landscape of modern healthcare—and its sustainability.

Earkick is just one of numerous free apps designed to address the mental health crisis affecting adolescents and young adults. Since these apps do not claim to diagnose or treat medical conditions explicitly, they fall outside the regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, this hands-off approach is now facing increased scrutiny with the rapid advancements in chatbot technology driven by generative AI, which leverages extensive data to simulate human language.

Proponents argue that chatbots are cost-free, accessible round the clock, and devoid of the stigma often associated with traditional therapy, making them an appealing option for many individuals.

Yet, there is limited empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of chatbots in improving mental health. Furthermore, none of the leading chatbot companies have undergone FDA approval to demonstrate their effectiveness in treating conditions like depression, although some have initiated the voluntary process.

According to Vaile Wright, a psychologist and technology director at the American Psychological Association, the absence of regulatory oversight raises concerns about the actual impact and efficacy of these chatbots.

While chatbots cannot replicate the interactive nature of conventional therapy, Wright believes they could be beneficial for addressing less severe mental and emotional issues.

Earkick’s website explicitly states that the app does not offer “any form of medical care, medical opinion, diagnosis, or treatment.”

Despite such disclaimers, some legal experts argue that a more direct disclaimer, such as labeling the app as purely recreational, might be necessary to mitigate potential risks.

Nevertheless, chatbots are already filling a crucial gap due to the persistent shortage of mental health professionals. Initiatives like the U.K.’s National Health Service providing the Wysa chatbot for stress and anxiety relief highlight the growing acceptance of these digital tools in supporting mental well-being.

Dr. Angela Skrzynski, a family physician in New Jersey, notes that patients are often receptive to trying chatbots, especially when faced with long waiting lists for therapy appointments.

In response to the escalating demand for mental health services, healthcare providers like Virtua Health have integrated chatbot applications like Woebot into their offerings. These apps provide a valuable resource for both patients seeking support and clinicians striving to meet the needs of individuals struggling with mental health issues.

Founded in 2017 by a psychologist trained at Stanford University, Woebot distinguishes itself from other chatbots by utilizing structured scripts crafted by company experts and researchers instead of large language models. This approach aims to ensure the safety and reliability of the healthcare-related content delivered to users.

Alison Darcy, the founder of Woebot, acknowledges the challenges associated with incorporating generative AI models into mental health chatbots, citing issues with maintaining control over the conversations and ensuring user safety.

While research suggests that chatbots could offer short-term relief for symptoms of depression and distress, concerns remain regarding their ability to address long-term mental health outcomes and emergencies like suicidal ideation.

Critics like Ross Koppel from the University of Pennsylvania caution against the potential displacement of proven therapies by chatbots, emphasizing the importance of regulatory oversight to safeguard consumers.

As the debate over the role of chatbots in mental health continues, healthcare providers are exploring ways to integrate these digital tools into routine care practices, underscoring the need for a comprehensive understanding of their impact on individuals’ well-being.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP retains full editorial responsibility for all content.

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Tags: Last modified: March 23, 2024
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