In Singapore, a study on mental health treatment by the Institute of Mental Health indicates that there is a clear “treatment gap” in some of the most common mental illnesses in the country. Only 1 in every 20 people (4.8%) who abuse alcohol seek treatment. The numbers are higher for those who suffer from major depressive disorder (41.4%) and generalised anxiety disorder (44.5%), but this still means that more than half of all those who are depressed or anxious are not seeking treatment.

In fact, mental healthcare systems all across the world are struggling to keep up with the services required of them. Research from the World Health Organization indicates that 76% to 85% of people from low- and middle-income countries and 35% to 50% of those in high-income countries do not receive any treatment for their mental illnesses.

To provide greater access to treatment of mental health illnesses, some startups have roped in the chatbot, to allow users who may not have access to a mental healthcare professional to first seek help from a machine instead.

What is a chatbot?

Chatbots are computer interfaces that programmed to simulate conversations with a real human being. They are currently being used to varying degrees of success in multiple industries.

Photo: Freepik

Some of the chatbots we are most familiar with include virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Now. These chatbots are more complex and have been programmed with artificial intelligence scripts that learn, over time, which results are more relevant to users based on their responses.

Other chatbots are much simpler, acting as the first line of customer service on company websites, answering basic queries and helping users search for the information they need. Some of the more rudimentary versions of such chatbots operate like computerised flowcharts–users are given the option to choose from a series of questions to which there are standard answers that lead to other fixed questions and answers.

Chatbots for Mental Health Services

Chatbots for mental health services, like Tess and Woebot, are now also being developed for those who would like to speak to a mental healthcare professional but do not have access to such resources at the moment. The technology is still in its nascent stages and responses given can sometimes be limited. Despite this, many who have used the services have reportedly found them effective.

GIF of Woebot
Photo: Woebot

For an example, Tess, which is available via an instant messaging app, has been approved as an in-house therapist for the staff at Saint Elizabeth Health Care in Canada. The app was designed by Michiel Rauws, the founder of an AI startup in Silicon Valley. It was programmed to function like a therapist and so will predict, based on the conversations it has had with other people, the type of therapy you would best respond to. If that doesn’t work, Tess will switch to a different therapeutic method.

Woebot, which is available as an app as well as on Facebook Messenger, is currently being used by people all across the world. A version of the app has been tested and declared just as effective as in-person therapy in a clinical trial by one of its founders is Alison Darcy, who was a clinical psychologist at Stanford. Unlike Tess, which explores various methods of therapy to find the one most appropriate for the user, Woebot helps its users solely through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Developers of such chatbots are quick to clarify that these chatbots have not been developed to replace mental healthcare professionals. They stress that users should still seek professional help if they find the chatbots ineffective. In addition, some chatbots will automatically alert the relevant authorities if users say things that indicate that they may be a danger to themselves.

Speaking to Tess over smartphone. Photo: SEHC.

Why are Chatbots the Future of Mental Health Services?

Human-like Speech Patterns Provide Comfort

Although chatbots cannot replace the help that mental healthcare professionals can provide, especially in cases where the disorder greatly affects one’s ability to function in the world, they can go a long way in helping individuals suffering from mild depression or anxiety as well as those who are simply having a tough day. Instead of having to wait months to seek the help of a healthcare professional, during which a disorder may have worsened, individuals can first address the issue through use of these chatbots. Chatbots, which mimic the pattern of human speech and respond as a human might, can provide temporary relief for users who may be seeking an emotional outlet for their troubles.

AI-powered Improvement in Help Offered

As the machine-learning algorithms in these chatbots continue to learn from human responses, assistance delivered via these chatbots will improve over time. Therapeutic treatments will become more tailored to each individual based on the information they reveal about themselves. This can increase the overall effectiveness of chatbots for mental health treatment and reduce some of the burden on our current mental healthcare systems.

Chatbots for Mental Health in Singapore?

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The Health Hub website. Photo: Health Hub; Ministry of Health, Singapore.

Health Hub, a “one-stop portal and mobile app” for Singaporeans will be introducing a chatbot to its platform soon. Users who believe they may be ill can input their symptoms into the chatbot, who will then provide them with advice on what to do. Notably, the chatbot is reported to have been localised and will be able to understand Singlish and medical terms specific to Singapore, such as ‘Medisave’.

Although no plans have been made for a mental health counterpart, one can certainly see the benefits of a localised version of Tess or Woebot for the overworked Singaporean teenager or the stressed-out executive, fully accessible through their mobile phones. With more than half of those who suffer from depression and anxiety not seeking treatment in the country, it’s time we considered machine-learning in our solutions and doing for mental health what we’ve done for physical health.

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