The Hottest Thing in Online Therapy is a Chatbot That Teaches CBT

Online therapy is a thriving field — with good reason. While research shows that face-to-face therapy can be more beneficial in a lot of contexts, online therapy is accessible to a lot of people for whom traditional therapy may be out of reach in cost or distance, or because of stigma.

But where reputable online therapy providers still connect patients with licensed clinicians, the latest approach to online therapy doesn’t even connect you with a human. Woebot is a digital therapist — a research-backed chatbot designed to help people suffering from mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

If you’re thinking that a chatbot can’t possibly provide the same level of personal care as a real, life therapist, you’re absolutely right. Woebot isn’t designed to offer all the benefits of talk therapy. Artificial intelligence may be improving quickly, but we’re definitely not at that point. What Woebot does claim to offer is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it delivers that therapy in a manner similar to a self-directed course or self-help book.

Now, that isn’t quite as revolutionary as the creators of Woebot imply when they describe the chatbot as offering “natural, personalized, and human-like conversations” that give users the emotional support they need. Web-based CBT has been available for a while now, and it’s been researched extensively. It does tend to be effective. But one thing web-based CBT tends to fail at is adherence. Research shows that for someone to benefit from a self-directed CBT program, they need to practice the techniques they learn on a regular basis. Without guidance, people don’t always follow through.

It’s possible that Woebot’s ongoing chat prompts could make the difference. Stanford University researchers looked at its effectiveness and found that it was associated with a significant reduction of symptoms of depression and anxiety, much like other web-based CBT programs, when compared to study participants who were only given an informational ebook to work with.

Woebot’s creators believe the chatbot could make a significant difference for people dealing with anxiety and depression.

“Most people don’t have access to therapy today,” said Dr. Alison Darcy, Woebot’s CEO and founder, in a press release. “Barriers, like cost of treatment and social stigmas, have prevented people from getting the help that they need. Woebot represents a new era in digital therapy. We built Woebot to give people a customized therapeutic experience and the functional tools they need to manage something incredibly personal.”

There are two major caveats to that, though. The first is that Woebot isn’t free. While it’s less expensive than working with a licensed clinician in most scenarios, the cost may still be a barrier for some people. The second is that Woebot isn’t all that private. Because it’s offered through Facebook Messenger, it’s subject to Facebook’s rules — and that means your interactions with Woebot will probably be mined for advertising data and other internal company uses.

If privacy is a concern (as it generally is for many of us when dealing with sensitive, personal information), a licensed clinician or a service that offers a much stronger privacy policy may be a better choice.

Curious about Woebot? You can try it out for free for two weeks to see how it impacts your mood. If you enjoy its approach but want something a bit more personalized or well-rounded, a therapist who offers cognitive behavioral therapy might be an option worth investigating. If CBT isn’t your style, there are many other effective types of therapy to explore, too.

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