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Computer simulations offer no additional benefit over traditional therapy, study finds


Mental Health Professionals concerned that automated self-help programs will put them out of business can take some comfort in a new study — it found that when it comes to mental health care for depression, computerized self-help simulators offered no additional benefits over traditional therapies one might receive from their primary care physician. In fact, the study found that nearly 25% of participants dropped out within four months and failed to engage with the self-help program.

Dr. Christopher Dowrick of the University of Liverpool wrote an accompanying editorial in which he commented, “It’s an important, cautionary note that we shouldn’t get too carried away with the idea that a computer system can replace doctors and therapists . . . We do still need the human touch or the human interaction, particularly when people are depressed.”

Such simulators have been around for awhile and have increased in popularity as access to technology increases and the stigma surrounding mental health treatment continues. These programs are run purely on artificial intelligence, that is to say there is no human being at the other end giving their feedback or any empathetic response.

So, while it seems looking online for help is a growing trend, taking the human element out of that interaction may not be the best way to go. This is good news, however, for helplines, counselors, and others looking to offer live chat capabilities to their service. Clearly people want to take advantage of the anonymity, and desire a less-threatening way of asking for help, but connecting with a human being on the other end of the online conversation is an all-important element of that process.

NPR published an article about this study which you can read here, or read the study itself here.

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Dana joined the iCarol team in 2013 after 12 years of direct service and administrative duties in the Helpline Industry. You'll find her presenting Webinars, Tweeting, Blogging, Facebooking, and producing other materials to help others learn more about iCarol.

Comments (2)

  • Kejo Buchanan


    Hello Dana,

    I agree with the study but not the premise. I see these simulations as good tools to support wellbeing but not to replace therapy. They are great tools if all you have is a smart phone to confidentially relax between professional sessions and/or support groups.

    Thank you for posting this story.



    • Dana


      Really great point, Kejo! It’s true that these programs could be very beneficial for someone who wishes to supplement their professional mental health care. I think the problem occurs when folks try to replace the proven best methods of talk therapy combined with medication (if necessary), and turn to these simulations instead of, rather than in conjunction with those methods. The shame and embarrassment of mental illness still has many seeking a treatment that involves no human contact whatsoever, and it looks like that’s not effective. Thanks for adding to the discussion!


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