Six months into the launch of Wysa in 2016, co-founder Jo Aggarwal received a message from a 13-year-old girl in the US. “You are helping me hold on to myself, thank you.” This was a turning point for the mental health platform, which decided to focus on perfecting its chatbot- an AI-based emotionally intelligent ‘pocket penguin’ named the Wysa AI Coach.
Companies such as Wysa are integrating Artificial Intelligence with mental health services to offer 24x7 self-help to users, and this is yielding stellar success. There is Mindpeers, which is using machine learning to help companies assess the mental strain under which employees are.
The reason AI works so well in mental health is it offers a stigma and inhibition free experience for users. Wysa’s app offers a free chatbot service, along with options to subscribe to therapy. “We wanted to make a product that made stigma and access barriers irrelevant. This AI chatbot was started with 3-4 models like sentiment and emotion, and today, we have nearly 200 models,” said Aggarwal.
The chatbot functions on the foundation of the “disinhibition effect,” a hypothesis that people do not feel as inhibited telling an AI bot about their darkest thoughts. After Wysa’s recent funding round, where $20 million was secured, investments are expected to be channelled towards global expansion, given Wysa’s tie-ups with the UK and Singapore governments. In India, where 20 per cent of its 5 million user base resides, big plans are in motion, too.
“We are working with Whatsapp to roll out a version of Wysa for Indian users, and incorporating a Hindi version. We also plan to include regional languages in the future,” Aggarwal adds.
Other AI-based mental health platforms, such as Mindpeers, have taken on a more B2B focus. Co-founder Kanika Agarwal says, “Employers did not give as much importance to mental health pre-pandemic. Things changed with the work-from-home situation. Today, we work with around 33 companies on a retainer basis. We provide an AI-based data panelling service to HR, insurance and pharma companies.” This dashboard provides data about employees’ absenteeism and productivity that help companies assess their mental strain.
Mindpeers also has a proprietary mental strength test- a self-assessment for its 32,000 monthly users. The company is currently focused on providing users with a holistic experience by linking up with health and wellness apps, and smartwatches. “We also saw a 45 per m-o-m revenue increase five months ago since our app went global,” Agarwal added.
Agarwal said: “For Mindpeers, machine learning is replacing the need for therapists for those on a preventive spectrum.”
But these companies are not completely removing the human experience from the equation. Wysa’s chatbot recognises crisis situations and immediately offers helpline numbers, while Mindpeers also has community-based chat forums and a repository of therapists.