Meet Wysa: The Mental Health Chatbot


Hate Therapy? Not in to speaking about your mental health? Meet Wysa, the mental health chatbot, that can help you track your mood and help improve your wellbeing. An HE report.


Let's say you are going through a difficult time in life. There is a human therapist available over the phone and an AI chatbot. It's up to you whether to call or message. Also, nobody is watching.  Would you prefer calling a shrink? Or would you chat anonymously with a counsellor using a nickname like Wonder Woman? That's the premise of Wysa- an AI chatbot, which helps people, to manage their mental health.

What is Wysa? It is an AI-based ‘emotionally intelligent’ bot, a virtual coach who responds to the emotions you express and uses evidence-based cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT), DBT, meditation, breathing, yoga, motivational interviewing and micro-actions to help you build mental resilience skills and feel better..

Digital Mental Healthcare Market

Companies for some years have been experimenting with this idea. The "Eve "of all chatbots was named Eliza and made by Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965. Eliza 's primitive program was designed to engage in conversation in natural languages in a way that imitated a psychotherapist.With technological advancement, researchers today have built several chatbots that can listen, learn and teach people cognitive behavioral therapy. Why is this important? Low and middle-income countries spend less than US$2 a year per person on mental health compared with more than US$50 in high-income countries, according to a 2015 WHO report. And  technical solutions are cheaper than in-person therapy. YourDost, a digital health provider service provider, offers a chat with a human counsellor for Rs 99.

Supply-Demand Problem

Moreover, India itself isn't exactly known for its access to mental healthcare. An estimated 150 million people across India require mental health care interventions, both short and long-term, according to India’s latest National Mental Health Survey 2015-16. The survey, which was carried out across 12 states, found that the overall prevalence for current mental health morbidity was 10.6 per cent.

Nearly 56 million Indians suffer from depression, and 38 million have anxiety disorders, says 2017 WHO report. That is about 7.5 per cent of the population. Further, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says India needs 11,500 psychiatrists but has only 3,500. And by filling this gap, Wysa could be tapping in to a significant business opportunity.

Beginning and Early Growth

Wysa is the result of a year-long co-design effort between a 15-people team of psychologists, designers, developers and over 300,000 users to understand how AI chat can help them learn skills to build emotional resilience.A user can use Wysa anywhere, anytime for free, but messaging with a Wysa Coach will cost you Rs 2449 per month.  People from more than 30 countries across the world and all age groups talk with Wysa. The current user base is 300,000+ strong, multiplying and with some great user reviews.

The Wysa Way

Here's how it works. Wysa uses evidence-based techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which are suggested and approved by professional practising counsellors at Wysa for use in a self-help context.A user will need to be at least 18 years of age and authorised to sign an agreement and provide informed consent on behalf of yourselves before talking to a Wysa Coach. All conversations with Wysa and Wysa Coaches are private and not shared with anyone.

A user can schedule their daily conversations with Wysa, which learns and grows wiser with the user. The coaches are humans -- more specifically, they are professionals trained to listen, support and encourage users.  

The idea has got attention. Wysa was one among the top 10 startups in India to get selected for Google Launchpad Accelerator Programme. Touchkin-Wysa was also selected into the Philips HealthWorks program, which works with high-potential startups across the world to help them create solutions for the healthcare industry.

Is internet-delivered CBT as Effective as Therapist Delivered CBT?

As for an indication, that the impact extends beyond the time of conversation,  studies offer evidence. Alison Darcy, CEO of Woebot, a mental health chatbot, and a team of co-authors at Stanford published a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Mental Health that randomised 70 college students and asked them to engage with Woebot or a self-help e-book for two weeks. The students who used Woebot self-reported a significant reduction in their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Co-founder Jo Aggarwal spoke at a TEDx event on a topic with a twist: what makes AI compassionate?

Why we need Mental Health Chatbots?

Even mental health experts point out that several advantages for such tools. “Compared to traditional mental healthcare delivery, technological innovations have several advantages, and these include ease of accessibility, convenience, anonymity, lower cost, scalability, 24x7 availability, and consistent delivery across persons and time. Hence they have exciting potential to be a game-changer in settings with a shortage of appropriate human resources.  A word of caution though. Although digital technology has exciting potential to transform mental healthcare one major challenge is ensuring the effectiveness of care in an unregulated digital marketplace filled with technological solutions that make tempting claims about improving mental health without supporting evidence,” says Abhijit Nadkarni, Associate Professor, Centre for Global Mental Health.


Nelson Vinod, Founder, Suicide Prevention India foundation, warns that AI chatbots can never be a replacement for face-to-face or other interventions where there is a human on the other end (online chat, video, text). “They can complement. This is because humans need a human touch, where they feel that the other person understands what you are saying, supports you and is concerned about your well-being. This is called building a therapeutic alliance. Chatbots work well for getting things done, getting patient information, identifying issues, follow-ups, monitoring, and where it's more of solution-oriented therapy. However, won't work well when clients need empathy, emotional support, actively listening, reflection, reassurance through a smile or a touch,” he adds.

But the point is that there are millions of people who don’t see a therapist, despite the fact that it will help them. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a beginning. And Vinod also agrees. “AI chatbots work well for self-care where they can help clients focus on things that they can do to make them feel better, and they can act as artificial motivation coach, keeping score and be an active reminder. AI chatbots can also help humans analyse data and provide recommendations based on processing information. For instance, CrisisTextLine in the US found that instead of just asking if someone was suicidal, it worked better if the volunteer displayed care and concern for the suicidal person by letting them know that they are worried about their safety,” he concludes.


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