How is technology being used to enhance therapy?

Lara Williams

Lara Williams, Editor-at-large

Vilified in the press as increasing anxiety and depression – technology is often seen as the enemy to a healthy brain. But start-ups are finding innovative ways to use new tech to combat mental health issues.

Last week, Jean M. Twenge published an article in the Atlantic warning of the impacts social media and smartphones are having on iGen, the generation growing up in a world of Snapchat and Facebook.

One stark statistic brings to light the damaging effect our smartphones can have: “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”

However, there are start-ups challenging this trend, channeling new technology such as AI and VR into ways to enhance therapy.

VR Exposure

One such start-up is Limbix, whose technology focuses on aiding recovery from PTSD and phobias.

They’ve developed apps for patients and therapists – allowing homework such as mindfulness and thought diaries to be set and completed.

Because the app works on a patient’s smartphone, a device rarely separated from its owner, there is a greater compliance with completing homework.

But the most exciting innovation is their Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy or VRET.

virtual reality exposure therapy

Source: Limbix

Via Google’s Daydream, the smartphone-powered VR headset, therapists can place their patients in stressful situations or trigger important memories and emotions by returning to key locations – all without leaving the sofa.

In a NY Times article, psychologist Dr. Jewell discusses treating a patient traumatised by a car crash by returning to the road on Google Street View: “It provides exposure in a way that patients feel safe.”

With the technology, psychologists can also provide graduated exposure therapy for phobias. If a patient was scared of driving for example, you can adjust the weather, speed and location of the VR driving simulation and increase the intensity as the patient progresses.

Traditionally, therapists get their patients to simply imagine these situations, making it easy for patients to avoid truly thinking through past traumas. However, the headsets reduce distractions and force the user to fully commit and engage with the exposures.

There have already been results. Trials have found that “VRET produces significant behaviour change in real-life situations” and is as effective as in vivo for treating specific phobias.”

The Woebot will see you now.

therapy woebot chat bot

Source: Woebot

Created by scientists and AI experts at Stanford University, Woebot is a chatbot therapist.

Chatting to users through Facebook Messenger, Woebot helps to monitor mood and manage mental health issues through short 5-10 minute daily chats.

He draws on methods from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help educate his ‘patients’ on how to recast negative and anxious thoughts in a more objective light.

Interaction with Woebot is done mainly through selecting pre-determined answers, but you get free reign when it comes to talking about how you feel. Woebot then encourages the user to do the analysing, merely providing prompts to help the process.

woebot chat bot therapy tech

Source: Woebot

This acts to reduce the chance of the algorithm saying something destructive, but also serves as effective therapy. As Alison Darcy, psychologist and CEO of Woebot says: “A really good CBT therapist should facilitate someone else’s process…[not] become part of that process.”

On a platform that everybody recognises, the beauty of Woebot is that the process feels familiar and safe, possibly even safer than a conversation with a human – Darcy points out: “There’s a lot of noise in human relationships…the fear of being judged.”

Being a robot, Woebot removes that fear of judgement completely and helps users open up more completely.

It works too. The chatbot even has peer-reviewed clinical data behind it – showing that testers who spent two weeks of chatting to Woebot saw a significant improvement in symptoms of depression over those who referred to self-help books.

Woebot likes to stress he is just a robot, and not a cheaper alternative to actual help. But available 24/7, he’s also (proven to be) better than nothing.

It seems fitting that both these initiatives are using platforms known to have a negative effect on mental health – Facebook and the smartphone itself.

And while they still have a lot to prove, it’s clear that technology is making therapy more effective and accessible for all.

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