Mental Health Support
01 Oct 2021

Talking therapy is a wonderful tool for mental health recovery. It can be very useful to communicate your thoughts to a real person in real time. However, such therapy may seem unattainable for many. Private services can be very expensive and free services are often underfunded. Thus high fees or long waiting lists can make access tricky. The process of seeking help and finding a specialist therapist can therefore be difficult, especially for those doing it by themselves.

Many people are daunted by the idea of robots doing ‘human jobs’. However, the reality is that artificial intelligence has already moved into the field of mental health. Arguably, AI-based therapy has proved its worth over these last two turbulent years. Not only was there a steep rise in the demand for mental health support during the pandemic, but access to human therapists was limited due to social distancing restrictions. Enter the robot therapist.

Some of the advantages of automated therapy are obvious. Robots don’t sleep or tire, they don’t experience screen burnout and they don’t have their own mental health priorities. They can be programmed to specialise in different fields and can learn to mirror patient behavior to aid in comfort. Apps such as Headspace and BetterHelp have made a start in this area; however, the next stage may actually involve in-person robotic therapists.

Dr Kate Anthony, CEO of the Online Therapy Institute, recently told The Guardian: “Technology is not a natural fit for the therapeutic experience, but the pandemic proved it to be a good fit where desired or necessary.”

With a mental health emergency underway, perhaps it is time to try out new forms of digital therapy? These might not just be necessary, but also crucial. But would you really feel comfortable relaying your troubles to a self-learning machine?

Of course, some experts have expressed concerns over these developments. Relationship therapist Rachel Morris told the BBC: “It’s a bit like a self-help book online. Self-help books, which give generic advice, make general suggestions which people often feel is really life-changing – but to say that apps would replace a therapist is just incorrect.”

As the world returns to a version of normality, it’s likely that these digital platforms will be used more and more for wellbeing support, even if they prove incapable of supporting specific mental health needs. However, it is also likely that advances in AI will soon improve the ability of robot therapists to provide support on a more personal level.

For instance, we have seen the rise of robotic pets. Sony’s AIBO – a series of robot dogs – are very popular in Japan. Robot dogs have also been used in the UK as a form of support and companionship for care home residents during the pandemic. So it seems that some people are able to genuinely connect on an emotional level with robots, at least when they are presented as pets. Could a robotic ‘human’ companion also play a role in mental health support?

As the mental health industry advances it should pay attention to the opportunities afforded by new technologies. It is important take such opportunities seriously and to avoid kneejerk reactions to the idea of artificial intelligence. However, it is equally important that mental health support does not suffer as a consequence of adopting emerging tech. The benefits of new technology may be obvious, but we must also consider the drawbacks and risks. Just as AI is set to reshape the job market, such developments may also bring far-reaching changes to the nature of mental health support.

Robotic companions and wellbeing apps can provide immediate relief for those with mental health problems and could even help in a crisis – when reaching out to a real person is not possible or too difficult. After all, these tools are built and coded by real people with genuine expertise. They could be a huge step towards making mental healthcare more accessible. But any development that replaces or detracts from human-to-human contact is likely to remain a difficult and controversial issue.

Note: No Pathfinder West Sussex partners have plans to introduce robots.



The Guardian: Is robot therapy the future?

BBC Scotland: Rise of the robot therapist — has artificial intelligence now become good enough to help us talk through our problems?

BBC News: Therapy dogs replaced with robotic pets at Hythe care home