A Stanford researcher might be on the brink of a dramatic shift in how we treat depression

Depression is the leading disability worldwide, and it can kill. Nevertheless, scientists know surprisingly little about it.

We do know, however, that talking seems to help — especially under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. But therapy is expensive, inconvenient, and often hard to approach. A recent estimate suggests that of the roughly one in five Americans suffering from mental illness, close to two thirds have gone at least a year without treatment.

Several Silicon Valley-style approaches to the problem have emerged: There are apps that replace the traditional psychiatry office with texting, and chat-rooms where you can discuss your problems anonymously online.

The newest of these tech-based treatments is Woebot, an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot designed using cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the most heavily-researched clinical approaches to treating depression.

Before you dismiss Woebot — a pun combining “woe” and “bot” — as a half-baked startup idea, know this: It was designed by Stanford clinical psychologist Alison Darcy, who tested a trial version of the technology on a small sample of real people with depression and anxiety long before launching it.

“The data blew us away,” Darcy tells Business Insider. “We were like, ‘this is it.'”

The results of the trial were published June 5 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health. For the test, Darcy recruited 70 students who said they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety and split them into two groups. One group spent two weeks chatting with Woebot; the other was directed to a National Institute of Mental Health e-book on depression. Over 14 days, people in the Woebot group not only reported chatting with the bot almost every day, but saw a significant reduction in their depressive symptoms.

That’s a promising result for a type of treatment whose results have so far been tough to quantify. (We don’t have a lot of research comparing bot-to-human therapy against traditional human-to-human therapy.)

Woebot uses a technique called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to talk to patients, and several studies suggest the approach lends itself to being administered online. A review of studies published recently in the journal World Psychiatry compared people who received CBT online to people who did it in person, and found that the online setting was just as effective.

One reason for this, according to Darcy, is that CBT focuses on discussing things that are happening in your life now as opposed to things that happened to you as a child. As a result, instead of talking to Woebot about your relationship with your mum, you might chat about a recent conflict at work or an argument you had with a friend.

“A premise of CBT is it’s not the things that happen to us, it’s how we react to them,” Darcy says.

Woebot uses that methodology to point out areas where a person might be engaging in what’s called “negative self-talk,” which can result in seeing the environment around them in a distorted way and feeling bad about it.

If, for example, a friend forgot about your birthday, you might tell Woebot something like, “No one ever remembers me,” or “I don’t have any real friends.”

Woebot might respond by pointing out that you’re engaging in a type of negative self-talk called “all-or-nothing thinking,” which is a distortion of reality. In reality, you do have friends and people do remember you. One of those friends simply forgot your birthday.

“Self-talk is a part of being human,” Darcy says. “But the kinds of thoughts that we have actually map onto the kinds of emotions we’re feeling.”

Darcy is quick to point out that Woebot is not a replacement for traditional therapy, but rather an addition to the toolkit of approaches to mental health.

“I tend to not think of this as a better way to do therapy. I think of this as an alternative option,” Darcy says. “What we haven’t done a good job of in the field is give people an array of options. What about the people who aren’t ready to talk to another person?”

NOW WATCH: How to know if you’re actually depressed

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