Networks and Management Information Systems (Retired)
University of Oregon College of Education
This is a cross-post from the Information Age Education newsletter
Adjusting to college also influences identity — a phenomenon Silver has termed Identity Disorientation. “When students head off to college, the familiar people are no longer there to reinforce the identity these students have created for themselves.” This can make students “disoriented and feel a loss of their sense of self,” contributing to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The Original Chatbot
Chatbot software was originally based on the "Eliza" virtual therapist that was developed back in the early 60s by Professor Joseph Weizenbaum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Markoff, 3/23/2008). I studied "Eliza" in the late 90s and used it as a model for a virtual professor I developed when I worked at the University of Oregon. I was so excited to see that someone had finally recognized the potential of artificial intelligence to help people cope with life's challenges!
- "Psychoeducational content was adapted from self-help for CBT. Aside from CBT content, the bot was created to include the following therapeutic process-oriented features:
- Empathic responses: The bot replied in an empathic way appropriate to the participants’ inputted mood. For example, in response to endorsed loneliness, it replied “I’m so sorry you’re feeling lonely. I guess we all feel a little lonely sometimes” or it showed excitement, “Yay, always good to hear that!”
- Tailoring: Specific content is sent to individuals depending on mood state. For example, a participant indicating that they feel anxious is offered in-vivo assistance with the anxious event.
- Goal setting: The conversational agent asked participants if they had a personal goal that they hoped to achieve over the 2-week period.
A Chat with Woebot
Woebot is now freely available online (Woebot, n.d.). On the Woebot website, you can click on a link that connects you and Woebot to a private Facebook Messenger session that no one else can see. Then Woebot talks with you about how you are feeling and how you can keep a positive frame of mind using techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy. I've had talks with Woebot about those pesky "should" statements, discussions about self-defeating "all-or-nothing" viewpoints, the futility of trying to predict other people's reactions, and the importance of self-compassion. Sometimes the little bot even provides interesting short videos about behavioral research.
Using Gamification to Combat Poor Adherence
In their article cited earlier, Fitzpatrick, et al., note that other psychologists have been experimenting with computerized CBT, but that motivating patients to continue interaction with computerized CBT tools has been challenging:
CBT for Seniors
I contacted the CEO of the Woebot project, Dr. Alison Darcy, and submitted a written interview to which she responded. In it I encouraged her to develop a Woebot to assist much older people with depression and loneliness. I pointed out that seniors' mental health needs differ significantly from those of college students, as the challenges of aging often involving chronic illnesses, deaths of loved ones, living alone, and feelings of irrelevance when no longer employed in the workplace.
CBT Delivery with Virtual Assistants
With the growing presence of voice-activated virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa, I also expressed my support for porting Woebot to a voice-only interface to Darcy in my written interview with her. Many older adults are not as technology-savvy as college students and probably are not as comfortable on Facebook or a smartphone.
Summary and Final Remarks
The skyrocketing cost of higher education is adding to the mental toll that transition to higher education and adult life takes on modern college students. With studies that show one out of every four college students suffers from some form of mental illness, psychologists worldwide are now focused on providing mental health care to these young adults. But, the stigma that often accompanies mental health treatment remains an obstacle.
References and Resources