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Have You Heard Of ‘Paro’? A Stuffed Seal Robot That Lowers Stress, Anxiety And Depression

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What do we have in store for us?

Can a Chatbot or Freud app fully replace a therapist? As of today, No. It seems plausible that the future of psychotherapy involves significant advancements in AI which will have a profound influence on psychological practice with systems that will administer evidence-based and very effective treatments to clients. Although the application of AI technologies in the mental health care field is filled with the potential to increase access to care innovatively, it comes with its own risks and drawbacks.

AI-Therapy Systems:

There already have been major breakthroughs which indicate an interesting future in therapy. Beginning with ELIZA in the 1960s, a simple computer program that mimicked non-directive social interactions and received a shocking number of personal responses by its administrative staff, to the currently popular Woebot, a chatbot by Facebook which responds to maladaptive thought patterns by using the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and engages in more than 2 million conversations a week.

Paro, a harp seal stuffed robot was created for the elderly and those in homes or those who cannot responsibly take care of a pet. Although non-living, Paro can provide similar comfort as provided by a pet by responding to touch and voice and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing stress.

Ellie, created by USC researchers, helps people with depression and veterans suffering from PTSD using a webcam and microphone which enables her to analyse emotional cues and provide feedback and also by processing the rarest of speech which helps her record pauses. Similarly, Karim, a psychotherapy bot aids workers and refugee communities in the Middle East.

Therapeutic video games and mobile applications are on the rise with increased benefits such as improving self-confidence (eg. Mindbloom), adherence to treatment, reducing stigma surrounding mental health and also enhancing social skills, eg. Second Life, an online virtual game for children with autism or Sosh, a mobile app for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome.

A bright future?

AI therapy can, in fact, prove to be extremely favourable.

Many times patients lack the motivation to follow up with their therapists or stick to plans and techniques advised for their betterment. Currently, a certain technology is being worked upon which provides tailored mental health treatment that helps clients to stay committed to therapy.

AI therapy can also spot suicidal patterns and thoughts which humans may potentially miss by analysing them and examining curated databases of clinical knowledge. This is a huge plus as it helps to prevent self-harm and will reduce the number of deaths caused by suicide.

The future also takes a look at having potential implanted AI technologies which may repair general cognitive abilities or restore function to areas of the brain that have been damaged by strokes or brain injuries.

A self-help paradigm that can be personalised according to an individual’s needs and can also experience important emotions needed during counselling like empathy or respond and recognise emotions of the patient while taking in cultural differences into consideration does indeed sound all too good. However, it can have threatening downsides.

Risk factors:

Chatbots and AI therapy systems aren’t protected by medical data privacy and security law. The early ELIZA program was shut down immediately when its creator perceived it as a threat after its outraged users found out that all their conversations were recorded and accessible. Similarly, although Facebook’s Woebot keeps identities anonymous, Facebook still owns logs of all conversations which Woebot has with its users. Confidentiality and privacy become blurred with the use of autonomous AI systems.

At the same time, certain AI therapy systems can be very expensive. For eg., Paro costs almost $7,000. This defeats the purpose of AI therapy aiming at increasing accessibility to mental health care. Although doubtful, AI therapy can also have other economic implications to the field of psychology leading to job losses in a knowledge-based profession if systems are developed to a point where they can provide a full range of mental health services.

Therapists frequently encounter ethical dilemmas. To tackle these, AI systems will be expected to make value judgements which involve complex reasoning and technology at the end of the day which is always vulnerable to errors. An extreme advancement in AI that enables systems to develop their own values and beliefs is possible but risky as it may conflict with those of its own creator. Weizenbaum, the creator of ELIZA, said, “Computers should not be allowed to make important decisions because computers lack the human qualities of compassion and wisdom”.

An important aspect of therapy is the “human element” which develops the therapeutic bond between the client and therapist — something that futurists believe AI systems will lack. Along with such genuine connections, a consequential change in a patient’s life as a result of therapy comes with the fallibility and tension involved in the process. There is a good chance that AI systems will exceed these sensory capabilities of humans.

And lastly, unlikely but possible, a positive transference toward an AI system would be problematic and baffling to resolve, as depicted in the movie Her.

In any case, therapy may radically change. It is safe to anticipate that face-to-face counselling may not be practised everywhere at all times due to more convenient therapy systems supplanting them. There may be a rise of “surrogate counsellors” with protocol packaged treatments for common mental disorders (eg. depression, anxiety) that can be accessed by clients. Practice settings are bound to change and payment transactions may also be mostly electronic.

Advanced AI technology is already found in almost all sectors today including mental health care. AI and the future of psychotherapy seem to be ideal in many ways, opening doors to incredible possibilities which were not at all imagined in the past. Technological singularity is near and it is definitely something to be thrilled about but it also shoots a series of new professional, legal and ethical complications. Considering how technology dependent we are becoming each day, it is easy to assume that the above-mentioned paradigms will become a reality. However, it is difficult to predict whether they will eventually and inevitably affect us favourably or not and it is imperative to build a unique framework which only aims at improving healthcare and lifestyle.


Feature Image Credit: Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash


Shruti Venkatesh is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.

Originally Published on:


Cottone, R. R. (2015, March 27). The end of counselling as we know it. Counseling Today.

Molteni, M. (2017, July 6). The Chatbot Therapist Will See You Now. Wired.

Goldstein, E. (2008, September 3). Are artificial intelligence and robots the future of mental healthMHMR Services for the Concho Valley.

Tieu, A. (2015, August 13). We Now Have an AI Therapist, and She’s Doing Her Job Better than Humans Can. Futurism.

Solon, O. (2016, March 22). Karim the AI delivers psychological support to Syrian refugees. The Guardian.

Celco, M. (n.d.). The Freud Apps: AI, Virtual Life Coaching, and the Future of Psychotherapy. Big Think.

Matthews, K. (2017, June 8). Will robots replace therapists? The Week.

Luxton, D. D. (2013, November 11). Artificial Intelligence in Psychological Practice: Current and Future Applications and Implications. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034559


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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