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If you're feeling down, a new chatbot could help. Woebot, which is integrated into Facebook Messenger and launched today, will deliver therapy by periodically checking in on users, asking them how they feel and making suggestions — for relaxing music or not talking negatively about themselves — based on their responses.

The artificially intelligent chatbot can deliver personalized mental health care that makes people feel measurably better, according to a new study. "It's a nice, elegant, simple application that shows a glimmer of what might be to come," says Skip Rizzo, psychologist, University of Southern California.

Why it's needed: Access to therapy can be limited for some (both physically and financially) and stigma around mental health care persists. Woebot, along with apps and other tech-based tools, attempts to deliver therapy but its effectiveness hasn't been clinically studied.

How it works: Woebot uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy and relies on a decision tree that mirrors the decision-making of therapists while speaking with patients. In the study, 34 college students who reported symptoms of depression and anxiety spent two weeks chatting with Woebot while 36 people in the control group were directed to the National Institute of Mental Health's e-book on depression. After 14 days, people who had been conversing anonymously with Woebot said their symptoms of depression were reduced (the control group's remained the same).

Man v. machine: Woebot's creator, psychologist Alison Darcy, says the bot isn't designed for diagnosis or intended to replace human therapy. Right now, people have to choose between nothing and regularly seeing a psychologist and she says Woebot is one of the few options in between.

  • Woebot may be superior to human therapists in the sense that people are as likely if not more to disclose mental health information to a computer compared to a human because of the stigma of receiving mental health care.
  • But... "Mental health problems are more nuanced and with a bot it can be hard to detect changes in behavior, particularly when it comes to suicide," says UCSF's Danielle Ramo, who was not involved in the study. People are sometimes in a better mood once they've decided to take their own life - something a therapist might recognize as a distress signal whereas a bot may not.

Study limitations:

  • The author's note the small number of participants, all undergraduate students meaning the results can't be generalized to the entire population.
  • Short duration: students interacted with Woebot for only two weeks and follow-up studies are required to see if the outcomes are long-term.
  • Woebot should be compared to in-person theory to tease out whether the effect is specifically from the bot or just from any interaction as opposed to reading a website.

Go deeper

Justice Department drops insider trading inquiry against Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) walking through the Senate Subway in the U.S. Capitol in December 2020. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The Department of Justice told Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Tuesday that it will not move forward with insider trading charges against him.

Why it matters: The decision, first reported by the New York Times, effectively ends the DOJ's investigation into the senator's stock sell-off that occurred after multiple lawmakers were briefed about the coronavirus' potential economic toll. Burr subsequently stepped down as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Netflix tops 200 million global subscribers

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Netflix said that it added another 8.5 million global subscribers last quarter, bringing its total number of paid subscribers globally to more than 200 million.

The big picture: Positive fourth-quarter results show Netflix's resiliency, despite increased competition and pandemic-related production headwinds.

Janet Yellen plays down debt, tax hike concerns in confirmation hearing

Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen at an event in December. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Janet Yellen, Biden's pick to lead the Treasury Department, pushed back against two key concerns from Republican senators at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday: the country's debt and the incoming administration's plans to eventually raise taxes.

Driving the news: Yellen — who's expected to win confirmation — said spending big now will prevent the U.S. from having to dig out of a deeper hole later. She also said the Biden administration's priority right now is coronavirus relief, not raising taxes.