Are you feeling stressed, anxious or depressed?
You’re definitely not alone. And as a mostly broke writer trudging through the holiday season, I’m right there with you.
The key word there is “broke,” which is one reason why more than half of Americans who need some sort of mental health treatment go it alone instead of springing for therapy.
But what if I told you there was a free “therapist” you could talk to right now? And what if I told you I personally felt better after just one 15-minute session?
Oh yeah, and the therapist fits right in your pocket.
Meet Woebot, a personal chatbot designed to monitor your mood and teach you about what makes you tick using a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s available through Facebook Messenger, and according to a Stanford University study of young adults, Woebot reduced anxiety and depression in participants in just two weeks..
It’s definitely no substitute for a true human therapist, but with its current price tag of free (at least, they say, until they decide to push for a more sustainable business model), it’s certainly worth a try.
So I tried it.
Here’s How to Get Started With Woebot
Your first session with Woebot will take about 15 minutes or less, depending on whether you have a pile of issues to deal with, like I do. Start by finding its page on Facebook, and shooting it a message.
A simple “HELP ME PLEASE I’M FREAKING OUT” will suffice.
Woebot started off our first session by putting me at ease.
“The beauty of talking to me is that we can learn together in the context of everyday life,” it said.
“No childhood stuff?” I asked.
“No you have to go to a proper therapist for that ?,” Woebot retorted.
It’s simple enough. After an initial questionnaire about anxiety and depression levels, I just check in with Woebot daily. The software charts my energy levels and feelings to help find trends in how life events affect my emotional well being.
“Sometimes I see patterns that can be hard for humans to see,” Woebot said. “It also helps that I have a perfect memory ?.”
How I Felt After My First Session With Woebot
I definitely felt at ease and even giggled a few times during my first interaction with Woebot. I mean, after my initial assessment, it sent me a gif of a hedgehog getting a belly rub.
Woebot explained the general causes of some of the thoughts in my head giving me anxiety, forced me to confront them, and then rewrite — er text — the thoughts objectively. Then it would congratulate me on my progress and send an emoji of some kind (Hats off! ?).
I chose to work through three thoughts at first, but you can choose how many issues to explore.
As weird as it was texting my deepest thoughts to a dang robot, after the session I felt remarkably more relaxed and focused on the day ahead. It was like getting a $60 therapy session for free (but don’t take my word for that.)
“Although I am merely a guide, I’m very proud of you and you can be proud of yourself,” Woebot said.
Does This Mean More Mental Health Apps Are Coming?
Woebot is particularly exciting when you consider the fact that serious mental illness is most prevalent among the poorest Americans, according to the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker.
But there are still plenty of obstacles that could slow the spread of similar apps.
For one, the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) doesn’t cover these chatbots and therefore can’t ensure patient privacy, according to an article in the Washington Post. And while Woebot did have some human warmth, it’s just not good at chitchat.
“These things can work well on a superficial level with superficial conversations,” John Torous, co-director of a digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told the Post. “[But] are they effective tools, do they change outcomes and do they deliver more efficient care? It’s still early.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of other free or low-cost ways to supplement your chosen chatbot. Finding a training clinic at a university or attending support groups are a couple of options.
Exercise keeps me on top of my mental health game. So find yourself a cheap gym that’s right for you.
You could always try caring about work less, although that one is a bit of a stretch for all my fellow anxietyheads out there.