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Can AI therapy solve the mental health crisis?

Stretched mental health services are turning to tech solutions, but will a chatbot ever master the human mind?

In May this year, an American woman sought the help of a chatbot on an eating disorders website. The bot, named Tessa and running on an evolving, generative AI, advised her to start counting calories. Perhaps she should get some calipers, it suggested, to measure her body fat. When it emerged that Tessa had given similarly dangerous advice to others, the bot was taken down.

As countries around the world face a mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic and a lack of human therapists, a new tech gold rush has begun. Can the latest self-help chatbots meet a desperate need, delivering “microtherapy” sessions on demand? Do they have a place in disaster zones? Or do people in crisis deserve human attention and support? In this week’s audio long read, the freelance reporter and author of Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman, talks to the people behind the latest incarnations of AI therapy in the UK and the US, as well as the technology’s critics.

Written by Jenny Kleeman and read by Zoë Grünewald.

This article originally appeared in the 13-19 October edition of the New Statesman. You can read the text version here.

If you enjoyed this episode, you might also enjoy “The psychiatrists who don’t believe in mental illness” by Sophie McBain.

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