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.

Stigma-free

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.

Human touch

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.

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