'I am sorry you feel this way'

can AI help the mental health crisis?

Tamuna Chkareuli


Converstation with chatbot Elomia. The input text was taken from real students expressing their struggles on Reddit. All the images were taken at ASU, Tempe campus.

 Part I - Digital Bandaid

Have you talked to a chatbot like you’ve talked to a therapist? 

Those of us born on the cusp of, or within the digital age are more accustomed to turn to technology for help. We prefer to google-map instead of asking for directions, and easily navigate purely digital relationships. It should not be a surprise that  we’ll turn to technology for mental health support when the existing human systems fail us.

Mental health awareness is at its historical highest, and perhaps that is one of the reasons that the gaping hole between the need and the help available is apparent now. Therapy is expensive, hard to book, and if done badly, scarring. Asking for help requires courage that is scarce when you’re at your lowest. And the perspective of jeopardizing your relationships is frightening. AI seems an imperfect, but an easy fix. 

Taking Arizona as a case-study, I’ve talked to young people and mental health professionals on their views on seeking help with artificial intelligence at times of crisis, and experimented with chatbots myself.

Conversation with Google Bard

Part II - Therapy Deserts

Telehealth and therapy apps have bloomed in pandemic, but none of them can match the availability of generative AI. The internet is full of accounts of people who found solace in chatbots after trying and failing therapy. While there is no data on how exactly people use the most common bots, it is likely that young people will be the ones to try  it for self-help.

Arizona is doing particularly badly when it comes to the mental well-being of the youth. Arizona Gallup Survey 2022 from the Center For the Future of Arizona shows that - 28% of people who were dissatisfied with access to mental health care are full-time students. When it comes to expressing concern about the access to services, GenZ are the most vocal group - 90% said  that mental health is an important problem. 

There is a downward trend in young children who haven’t had the opportunity to socialize with their peers in years of COVID-19, as noted by Dr. Matthew Moix from Arizona Association of School Psychologists. Anxiety becomes more pronounced in high school and psychologists are observing a lot more of school refusal and suicidality. “These aren't naughty kids. These are kids that are expressing their anxiety, their fear, their uncertainty about what's going on around them” Dr Moix said.

Chat with Microsoft Bing

Part III - It's better to have something, than nothing at all

What it’s like to be a young person in the mental health crisis and AI boom? Students I’ve talked to were far from seeing large language models as a substitute for therapy. The question that worried them more was the lack of empathetic response that would drive one to use it. 

One of the students I’ve talked to  is  Collin Newberry, a 21-year-old psychology and philosophy student from community college in Prescott. Collin has had a long therapy experience, and nw experimented with ChatGPT, asking the same questions. The bot, he says, was more supportive than a school counselor was, when he suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts at the age of 13 - “He told me he was in a band and it was his outlet for dealing with stuff, and he essentially just talked about himself.” Collin said in this scenario he’d much prefer ChatGPT, that offered to set small and realistic goals to get where you want to be eventually. 

“Especially with it being a machine and not wanting to talk about itself,  it is directly for you. It’s able to focus and prioritize rather than giving some human imperfection, so not telling you just generally wrong advice like - “if you're depressed, just like force yourself to get up and act like you weren't depressed and do everything normally or even 110%” - when like that's going to lead to burnout, you know, that's something that I've been told before in the past.”

Collin was able to speak up about his struggles at a young age, and eventually, with support of his family landed the treatment that helped him. But for his peers, that is not normally the case, he says. “One of my friends are LGBTQ member, and they are in a family that is not supportive of those types of things, and so they've had to deal with a lot of issues of moving out when they were essentially just 18, unprepared to really take on the world. When there's so many people that have no access at all, it's more beneficial to at least have something, this case being AI, than having nothing.”

Conversation with Claude - a bot from Anthropic

Part IV - Vessel For a Change

Therapists are only starting to acknowledge that AI is not a merely overhyped tech trend, and  that they have to adapt their practice to it. Osha Sempel, Phoenix-based psychologist is one of those professionals who is asking questions on what role AI takes in therapist-patient dynamic. After four years of counseling at ASU she has a first-hand perspective on the struggles young people are having.  Relationship in therapy, in her words is a “vessel for a great change”  - can a machine rise up to that role?

This is a pilot episode. Let me know if you’d like to hear more on AI and mental healthcare from professionals, tech experts and simply, people who tried AI and found it useful.

Advice from ChatGPT - the most popular generative AI as of now (Nov 2023)

Bonus - Creepy Bots

Even with well-known companies  it’s not guaranteed that your conversations will be safe, so do not put sensitive information out there - OpenAI  has had a data breach, and Google warns its own employees about using the chatbot. 

I’ve tested several chatbots, from ChatGPT to obscure ones from the depth of Reddit, to find out the differences between the conversation tone, advice and privacy limits they offer. While some had predictable results, a few of popular bots turned out to be straight out creepy.

This project was made for Multimedia Journalism class at Arizona State University. If you're in Arizona and you're going through a rough time metnally, remember there are resources to help you:

Resources for Maricopa County

ASU: Counseling Services - both online and in-person; don't hestitate to walk-in if in need
Devils4Devils - peer-to-peer  student support 

National Suicide Hotline: 9-9-8 call and text

You are not alone.