Artificial intelligence and Skype could help a lot of people. (Illustration by Kell Kitsch, Deakin University, Burwood)
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Artificial intelligence and Skype could help a lot of people. (Illustration by Kell Kitsch, Deakin University, Burwood)

What’s more convenient than a therapist in your pocket?

The barriers to receiving mental-health treatment are numerous: Reasons such as money, geographic access and stigma keep people from getting the treatment they need. Traditional therapy is often difficult to access in rural or geographically isolated places, and the idea of sitting in a waiting room where everyone knows you’re there for therapy can be enough to stop you from going in the first place.

However, the internet might be the key to bringing down some of these barriers. Technology has made it easy to connect with anyone anywhere, anytime, and now it has moved into the realm of connecting patient to therapist.

There are many names for technology-based therapy, such as e-therapy, e-counseling or telepsychiatry. Although technology has been employed to treat rural patients for decades, recently e-therapy has been gaining popularity, a service that can be accessed through several mediums, including email, video conferencing, phone calls, texting or online messaging.

You’ll get connected with a licensed psychologist, your insurance will help you pay for it (in most situations) and you schedule appointments to meet with your therapist in your preferred format. Artificial intelligence is also being used for cognitive behavioral therapy, which works very similarly to traditional treatment.

E-therapy also has some advantages that traditional therapy does not. First off, some are cheaper than brick-and-mortar practices, but for many just being able to communicate from the comfort of their own home is a major plus. For starters, it eliminates the hassle of commuting and getting out of your sweatpants.

Moreover though, for those suffering from agoraphobia or social anxiety, not having to leave home gives them access to therapy in a place they feel safe and comfortable. In addition, it can be a lot easier to communicate tough emotions when it’s not face to face. At the very least, e-therapy can help ease the transition to traditional therapy for those who are reluctant to try it.

One of the most popular e-therapy sites is BetterHelp offers therapy through their online messaging system, Skype, phone calls and texts. Skype therapy is almost identical to traditional therapy, as the patient and therapist meet at a scheduled time and talk together face to face. BetterHelp also boasts that patients have access to their therapists at any time, even without an appointment, which isn’t always an option with traditional therapy.

Another unique feature of this service is that you can take a quiz that will help find a therapist suitable to your needs. Otherwise, finding a therapist you like is often a long process of trial and error, which is not convenient for someone who needs help right away. If you’re interested in BetterHelp’s services, their therapy costs $40 to $70 a week, prices comparable to traditional face-to-face therapy.

Another technological development for e-therapy involves the use of artificial intelligence in place of a therapist. AI works particularly well for cognitive behavioral therapy, the most popular type, which targets a person’s unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and teaches them to recognize and change them.

The reason it can work through AI is because it’s based on universal management techniques that are easy for a computer to teach to a person. Most AI therapy apps operate as a chatbot that will ask you how you’re feeling and work with you to understand why, which of course mimics a conversation with a real therapist, but a major downside is that it cannot be customized to address patients’ specific needs.

An example of an AI cognitive behavioral therapy app is Youper. Similar to other apps, Youper mainly functions through a chatbot. Through what the chatbot learns, it can help you recognize what factors cause certain emotions and give you exercises based on how you’re feeling to help you improve your mood. Some of these exercises include guided meditation, which the app provides for you as well.

Finally, Youper allows those with clinical anxiety, social anxiety, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder and depression to track their symptoms and their severity to give you an idea of how you are doing over time.

Youper, and all of its services, are completely free, which makes it a great option for poor college kids. In fact, a study found that AI cognitive behavioral therapy is both a cost and time-effective way for college students to improve their mental health. AI technology is only getting better as time passes, so hopefully that means more advanced AI therapy techniques in the future.

As far as e-therapy goes, not many investigations have been done on its effectiveness. However, a study on telepsychiatry (video conferencing), the oldest form of e-therapy, found that telepsychiatry is an acceptable way to receive mental-health care. They also found that video-conference therapy has very similar outcomes to traditional therapy.

If you’re wondering if e-therapy is right for you, there are a few things you might consider.

It’s been said that messaging-based e-therapy works best for people who have an inclination toward writing. E-therapy is also best for people who only have mild to moderate mental illnesses; those with more severe mental disorders should have close and direct treatment, especially in times of emergency.

If you’re not sure if you have a mental disorder, but think that you might, keep in mind that online psychologists are not allowed to make official diagnoses, so if that is something important to you, it might be best to see a therapist face to face.

Finally, even if you don’t have a mental disorder or have minimal mental-health concerns, you should know that e-therapy and AI therapy are still great sources for psychoeducation and can help any person improve their emotional health and well-being.


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