It’s been less than two months since Open AI released their chatbot, ChatGPT, and it seems like prognosticators on Twitter are trying to outdo each other when it comes to describing how this changes everything. While some expect that it will completely transform therapy, I believe its impact will be more limited. Here’s why.
Therapy isn’t about insights or answers
I think this is a common misconception, one held by many clients and, unfortunately, even some therapists, but going to therapy isn’t like seeing a doctor. If you’ve broken your leg or if you are sick, you go to your doctor and they will mend your leg or provide you with the necessary medicine to feel better again. It doesn’t work the same way with your therapist.
Therapists aren’t sages holding the answers to life’s questions. They aren’t private investigators who’ll help you uncover some meaningful, but now forgotten, moment in your past that will explain everything. There’s nothing your therapist can say that will radically and immediately change your life. Therapists are simply humans with a deep desire to help and trained to listen. They are able to provide that relief that clients seek, but it doesn’t come from their brain.
Successful therapy requires a genuine human connection
One of the main reasons why people seek therapy is because they, in one way or another, struggle to develop and maintain relationships. Therapists can’t tell you what you need to do differently in order to be more successful in your relationships but they can help you experience what genuine human connection feels like. By listening to their clients so they feel heard, by being consistently there, accepting and nonjudgemental, clients can feel, often for the first time, what it’s like to be in a relationship where they can simply be themselves. Once they don’t have to maintain any façades or be held back by their insecurities and fears, their real selves can begin to emerge. One they’ve had this experience they can then begin to bring this real self into their relationships outside of the therapy room. Clearly this isn’t easy yet, once they’ve had this experience they at least know that it exists. They know that it is possible to be in a genuine relationship.
If therapy is about real human to human connection then the potential of mental health chatbots is limited. Feeling accepted by a computer can’t change anything because it just isn’t human. The relationship isn’t genuine. It can’t bind one closer to other humans. If anything it does the opposite resulting in people feeling more isolated from other humans.
One important caveat: we need more care
With all that said, I’m less pessimistic on chatbots for mental health care today than I was when I first encountered them several years ago. Partly because the technology has gotten better but more importantly because I have a better understanding of how desperately we need more mental health care, even if that means AI-based care. We aren’t training enough counselors to meet the already large demand for support. Chatbots are clearly not the solution but that doesn’t mean that someone can’t work out a way that they can be a part of the solution. For example, the nonprofit peer support organization Koko uses ChatGPT to help their peer supporters craft responses to the people reaching out for support. There are many challenges with this but if it helps more people feel support, maybe it’s worth exploring.