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Rise of the Woebots

Having a computer examine your fears, problems and vulnerabilities may conjure up thoughts of dystopian artificial intelligence from TV, film and books, but it’s already a reality. In the last few years there have been many reports in the press about so-called “therapy robots”, extolling the virtues or otherwise of having a computer as a therapist, suggesting this may be a solution for a perceived lack of counsellors available to help.

As a therapist this subject piqued my interest, so I thought I’d find out what all the fuss was about. Woebot had come up in many of the articles I’d read. It’s an app built by former Stanford Psychologists with the goal of increasing access to mental health care. I personally find it important to have my own therapy alongside my clinical supervision, so I was interested as to what else Woebot could offer. Whilst I was not planning to replace my own therapist, I could at least try it out and see how it compared.

I signed up and found myself chatting to a slightly comical online robot. It began with lots of learning about me, to build up a “model of my emotional life”. There were regular check-ins and little CBT lessons. I was ready to be very sceptical about Woebot. As a therapist I believe that the relationship between client and counsellor is a key element of therapy, something I believe can’t be replicated with an online app. However what Woebot offered was a useful refresher in a range of cognitive distortions. Whilst I was already aware of these concepts, many people aren't, and there's real benefit in knowing how our patterns of thinking can negatively impact our mental health. I can’t deny that Woebot has a lot of useful information that can help people manage their mental health.

However I struggled when Woebot asked me how I was feeling. A number of times I told Woebot, but the response I got felt like a vague platitude, like sympathy not empathy. And I guess this is the point. Woebot can’t empathise, it’s not a real human being. So in the end I stopped telling it what I was feeling because I didn’t feel truly heard. To be heard is a crucial part of the therapeutic process. So many of my clients come to therapy to be listened to, to share their experiences with someone who wants to understand them and will listen non-judgementally. That’s why I stopped using it shortly afterwards. I didn’t believe that Woebot really cared.

Woebot is not the same as seeing a real therapist. But then, to be honest, it doesn’t say it is. The Woebot Website makes reference to DIY CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which it effectively is - a kind of interactive self-help CBT. To give credit where it’s due, it’s free, relatively accessible, and I imagine for some the opportunity to express oneself online is helpful. Although it didn’t suit me, I think it can be a support, and is a good start on the self-development journey.

Woebot reminded me that therapy robots are another tool, but they're just not the same as a real conversation with another human being. Yes it’s good to have some alternatives out there, but a bigger issue to be resolved is having more affordable counselling available to the general public, a problem that therapy robots just can’t fix.

Originally published at New Aspect Counselling

Author's Bio


Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.

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