Mental health chatbots can effectively engage people with depression in empathetic conversations and assist in the treatment of their symptoms, a new study suggests.
Scientists from Nanyang Technological University Singapore looked at whether mental health chatbots could offer self-help for people with depression.
Also known as conversational agents, chatbots are computer programs that simulate human conversations and are increasingly used in health care.
Researchers analyzed nine mental health chatbots, four of which — Marvin, Serenity, Woebot, and 7 Cups — were free-to-use. Another five apps, Happify, InnerHour, Wooper, Wysa, and Tomo, required a subscription or one-time purchase to be used.
To evaluate the chatbots, the NTU research team used scripted user personas that were created to reflect different cultures, ages, and genders. The personas also presented behaviors that reflected varying degrees of depressive symptoms.
This study published in December in the peer-reviewed Journal of Affective Disorders found that all the chatbots engaged in empathetic and non-judgmental conversations with users. Chatbots also offer support and guidance through psychotherapeutic exercises commonly used by psychologists and counselors.
Moreover, all the chatbots analyzed kept the confidentiality of the user's personal information, such as chat history, names, or addresses.
"Digital health tools, including chatbots, could assist in providing timely care to individuals who may be unwilling or unable to consult a healthcare provider," said professor Josip Car, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at NTU's LKCMedicine.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects 264 million people globally. Half of the cases are undiagnosed and untreated.