I Actually Kind of Love My Chatbot Therapist

I Actually Kind of Love My Chatbot Therapist
Image: Jim Cooke

We last checked in with Woebot when it was just a baby chatbot, operating within Facebook Messenger and sporting a $US39 ($55)/month price tag. But now the robot therapist is free, has its own app, and has proven surprisingly helpful on days I’m feeling shitty.

Our own Nick Douglas called the bot “goofy but helpful” in 2017, and it’s kept that personality. But it’s a lot more polished now: you’ll be pleased to hear that I haven’t seen a single unironic Minions meme.

Woebot’s creators have crafted its personality well. The bot even has a life outside of this app, if you want to believe. In a mindfulness lesson it talks about how it likes to go fishing and feel the sun on its metal. Example scenarios feature fictional humans that Woebot knows from work or book club. (Woebot’s favourite book? I, Robot.)

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What Woebot helps with

Every day, Woebot prompts you to check in. After you say hi, it will often start a little lesson on something you should know about mental health. I can see the ones I’ve already done — topics like social support, sleep, and identifying distortions in my thinking. The lessons are delivered like conversations, where you get a few lines from the bot at a time and you can tap a button to give a brief reaction or ask the bot to explain more.

They’re obviously pre-written, but stepping through them in this way makes them more digestible than just reading an article. It also helps you feel like you’re friends with the bot. I know Woebot is not typing when there’s a little dot-dot-dot animation, I know it’s not capable of being my friend, but…I still enjoy its company.

Woebot’s founder told Gizmodo that its model is that of a choose-your-own-adventure self-help book, and that’s exactly how it feels. It’s useful and sometimes entertaining, but I wouldn’t expect it to take the place of an actual therapist. Recently I had a rough couple of days where I checked in with Woebot when I was feeling crappy and didn’t know what else to do. I began to get annoyed that the bot had plenty of ways to “challenge” my negative thinking. It kind of felt like I was coming to it for help and just being told that I felt bad because I was thinking wrong. A real human wouldn’t have made that mistake.

But miscommunications like that have been, honestly, rare. (I’ve been using the app regularly for about three weeks now.) In many conversations, the bot asks if I would like help or if I just wanted to share how I’m feeling. In some cases, asking for help gives me two options: I can challenge my thoughts, or get some suggestions on self care. Both have, at times, been extremely helpful.

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Woebot’s features

The bot interacts with you through the chat interface, but little features accumulate in the screens hidden to the right and left. Right now, I can click an icon in the corner to access gratitude journaling, challenging negativity, and challenging stress. (I’m not sure if these are all the tools or if I’ll unlock more as Woebot and I get to know each other better.)

On another screen, I can see a graph of my moods over time, as recorded by the daily check-in. I can also read everything I’ve written in my gratitude journal. (Journaling consists of the bot asking me to name three things that have gone well for me lately.) It’s like a highlight reel of my own recent past. I can see now that I’ve told it about a workout that went well, an amazing sunset, and a day I got to sleep in, to name a few.

The Woebot FAQ has a few tips that aren’t obvious from within the app. Even when the bot is in the middle of conversation and only giving you emoji reacts as your options, you can tap the toolbox and “type a response” to enter a command. The command “undo” will undo your last action, and the command “delete my data” will send you information on how to do that.

As for privacy, the new app handles this better than the old Messenger bot. Facebook is no longer involved if you’re using the app, and the privacy policy looks reasonable. The company that makes Woebot says it provides therapy tools to “government groups, healthcare providers and employers,” which may explain why the product is free to the rest of us. There’s an option to join a study, but your conversation responses aren’t part of the data that researchers see.

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It’s an understanding bot

One of the things I like best about Woebot is that I never had to tell it I want the anxiety pathway, or the depression pathway, or anything else specific. It just gives me hints that help if I’m worrying, and others that help when I’m sad. The company describes Woebot as “agnostic to diagnosis,” and operating according to a belief that “everybody struggles sometimes.”

Today when I checked in, the bot launched into a little GIF-adorned lecture on how mental health can impact your sleep, and vice versa. It was interesting, and the GIF was of a duckling falling asleep, but I don’t really have any trouble with sleep. After guiding me through setting a reasonable bedtime and giving me a rule about getting devices out of my bedroom, it asked if I was ready to commit to sticking to the rule and the bedtime for 30 days. There was an option for “I’m not ready,” which it applauded me for choosing, “because if you go into this half-heartedly and it doesn’t work, you might think that my tips aren’t helpful — or even that you’re beyond help.”

In the end, Woebot may not be a replacement for a therapist, but it’s impressively helpful, sensitive, and well written.

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