What can you do to help yourself if you’re seeking support, on a waiting listing for therapy, or just want to up your self-care game? You could try a wellness and mental health app like Woebot.
Before we start, let me just say that this article hasn’t be paid for or endorsed/sponsored by anyone. I was inspired to do this article after reading a post on the National Elf Service and because of my partner. However, if you’d like your product, app, or service reviewed, then visit my contact page and download my media pack and then contact me about how we could make that happen.
I decided to take the Woebot app for a test drive because my partner had told me that their place of work had started recommending it to their employees. However, my partner has a pet hate for employers offering wellness advice. Not that I can argue with that, it’s a plaster for a broken leg measure. Unlike my partner, however, I didn’t have a code to use to try out its potential premium features, so I just took the free option for a test drive.
My partner only told me about Woebot because they wondered what my thoughts would be about an AI therapist, but I’m all for it if it helps. It doesn’t perform the same work as an actual therapist, it more walks you through some basic self-help and self-care.
So let’s see if Woebot goes further than simply being the bare minimum to support people. I’ll start this article with a diary-like day-to-day use of the Woebot app. After that, I’ll talk about any positives and negatives of the app, followed by some suggestions. Lastly, I’ll give my verdict on the app to end the review.
Daily Diary: Week One
I downloaded and filled in the necessary information to join the Woebot. I then had a look around the app and saw that it appears to be an 8-week programme. Although, maybe something will happen once that 8-week mark is reached. I did all this pretty late in the evening so I agreed for my reminders to be around the same time.
To be honest, my first time using it was actually a better experience than I was expecting. I normally get annoyed with dealing with bots pretty fast, but somehow they’ve made this one not piss me off already. But it’s still early days, so who knows how long that’ll last.
Woebot sent me a notification late evening as I’d agreed to, and we had a little session to talk about self-fulfilling prophecy. The app provided easy to understand examples and gave a chance to get support to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. It also touched upon the thinking error of confusing feelings as facts. During the session, I noticed that the self-fulfilling prophecy was also an example of impostor syndrome.
Got my second notification to chat. Every day it asks me what I’m doing when I start the chat, it also asks me what my mood is, so I’m guessing that’s being tracked. In today’s session, Woebot taught me about underlying thoughts and how to bring them to the surface so you can try to overcome them.
Today Woebot told me a bit of random general knowledge, could be useful for a pub quiz one day, after the pandemic. Then Woebot told me about ‘labels’, with a brief example of the pros and cons of using them. Woebot then followed this by asking me for some personal examples of the labels I use to describe myself. The session seemed to be the start of a three-part programme with Woebot on the topic of ‘Growth Mindset’.
A growth mindset is where you recognise that skills and abilities can develop, grow, and change. In short, you can teach an old dog new tricks and you can get better at tasks with practice. A fixed mindset would be where there is little room to grow, meaning you’ll avoid challenges and trying new things. Personally, I think I float between the two depending on the situation.
Following on from the previous day’s session on ‘labels’, this session we talked about how positive labels can have their downsides. The downsides of labels weren’t something I’d ever really thought about before, at least not that I can remember. But the bot is right, having too much positive praise can put a lot of pressure on you to then live up to those labels at all times, which is both impossible and detrimental to your mental wellbeing.
However, just accepting a ‘growth mindset’ and just doing things even when you have no motivation as suggested, is a little too basic. I will often find myself just sitting in silence due to a total lack of motivation to do something but at the same time trying to think of something to do. Thus, some kind of intervention suggestions would be useful here to move me and others from a state of zero motivation to one where they have the motivation to engage in a growth mindset.
Today’s session ended with a surprise video, my first on the app (my partner had said they’d seen one when they gave it a try). My partner decided to give the app a try because I was, partly due to my reasoning for trying it. I had thought the videos were only going to be available on the paid service, as my partner who has access to the paid side and I hadn’t even seen a hint of one until now. The short video made for a nice break from the usual text chat dialogue.
Part three of the ‘growth mindset’ series wasn’t as useful as the other two parts, although the example Woebot gave was good. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I learnt anything that was actionable. Which I think would have been useful at this stage.
However, saying that, talking about how a label can be used as valuable data isn’t far off what I’ve done with myself in the past. One of the good things about getting a diagnostic label is that you can then research how to control the symptoms, improve your quality of life, and even overcome it. Much like how I tackled my anxiety disorders and psychosis with graded exposure.
I decided to take some of the other non-check-in features for a test drive and picked the ‘challenge stress’ option to try. However, instead of talking about stress, we started talking about anxiety, which is fine, but not what I was expecting. Furthermore, when I added the examples of my intrusive anxiety thoughts the replies didn’t quite line up with what I wrote so the replies from Woebot weren’t very good. But I can see what it’s trying to do. I guess my replies didn’t fit the usual ones the bot had been programmed for.
The information Woebot provided did link back to thinking errors, giving an example, and used that example to talk about challenging your thoughts, which is useful. I just wish it lined up with the examples I’d given so the replies were more relevant. Another issue arose with the example I’d given while doing this task, I was asked to rewrite my example to be more balanced, to stop it from being a thinking error. Unfortunately, I actually couldn’t really do that with the example I’d given.
Daily Diary: Week Two
It seems Woebot had stopped sending me check-in notifications since I decided to try out their ‘challenge stress’ option. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but I’d missed checking-in because of it. When I opened the app after two days of not having checked-in, it offered me the same fun fact it’d already told me, which is a shame. I think it’s only offered me a fun fact twice and it’s happened to be the same fact.
The app told me I’d started week two of the course when I swiped left from the chat interface. It also told me I’d not yet unlocked any of the week two’s modules and that I had four days left. This left me with a question, did doing the ‘stress challenge’ cause the check-in feature to stop working, and thus stop my progression in week two, or does week two not have check-ins and instead was relying on me to open the app on my own initiative? If the latter is the case, they probably should have got Woebot to tell me that during the last check-in before it stopped sending notifications.
Without the notifications I’d completely forgotten I was using Woebot. Which isn’t a great sign if the check-in stopping is intentional. I only remembered due to accidentally reminding myself as I was promoting another article for my site.
It seems we’ve returned to check-ins, so I’m guessing it was a mistake it stopped sending the notifications. I guess me randomly opening the app again turned that feature back on or something.
I’d been feeling unwell when I checked in that day. So I picked the option to say I was sick when Woebot asked me how I felt. However, the reply from Woebot about how it can be therapeutic to get things out of our heads and into words doesn’t make sense as a reply to me saying I was sick. It would appear Woebot only has two responses for when you say how you feel, something for a positive feeling and something for a negative feeling. This is a shame, as the bots first comment worked for how I was feeling, just not the follow-up comment. How hard could it be to get the bot to say something about it hoping I got better soon instead?
Anyway, after that Woebot talked to me about ’emotional weather’ and how good and bad weather comes and goes and we don’t have control over it. Woebot then basically linked this to self-care, asking for things or people that can help you ride out an emotional storm. Which kind of reminded me of the safety plan I created, just in a much simpler form and not for suicidal and self-harm management. A simple self-care plan.
Not sure what’s going on with the notifications, but I wasn’t sent a notification for checking-in again. The notifications returned for one day then stopped again. I hadn’t opened the app since the last check-in, but I also hadn’t tried doing a task outside of the check-ins like last time either. I’m not sure what’s guiding Woebots check-in algorithm, but it appears it needs some work.
When I checked-in, Woebot talked about how to change a low mood, talking about behavioural activation. Simply put, when you don’t do stuff because you have a low mood, instead of waiting for your mood to improve before you do stuff, you should do stuff because that’ll change your mood.
For the first time, Woebot actually had me doing an intervention, although very basic, getting up and cleaning my teeth (the other option was to wash my face). It’s a start towards taking action towards change, rather than just getting a psychoeducational lesson. But the tasks are for people so depressed they don’t even do step one of personal hygiene, so how likely are they to have this app?
To end the session, Woebot gave me a homework task to do over the following week. Although I applaud Woebot for giving me homework, the task it wants me to do is a little stupid. Why would I want to randomly clean my teeth if my mood is low and I’m just laying around on the sofa? I already clean my teeth twice a day. It would have been better to get me to move around doing something, like dancing on the spot, star jumps, or something like that.
Cleaning my teeth or washing my face as a random behavioural activation act doesn’t really seem useful unless you’re extremely depressed and skip doing that when you wake up and before you go to bed, which is obviously possible. It doesn’t seem likely that someone using this service through their work might be in a condition where they have to be reminded to clean their teeth, let alone at random times when you feel low.
But Woebot does save itself by asking about what personal behaviour you’ll do the next time you feel stuck by the end of the session. With the indication that it’ll follow up on what you said at a later date. So let’s see if it does.
Had a check-in again, making that two days in a row. This check-in was a return to a previous conversation about our core beliefs. This time Woebot wanted to find out what mine might be.
After briefly talking about my core beliefs, Woebot then linked back to when we talked about self-compassion, using the analogy of if someone you cared about had told you what you just identified as your core belief as being theirs instead, asking what you’d say to them. Classic move. It’s something that is used in counselling and it’s an easy skill to teach someone to try and challenge their thoughts.
Another missed check-in notification. I had a Woebot notification, but I think I cleared my notifications due to having too many showing at the time. I then forgot that I was meant to check-in with Woebot. My bad.
Completing Two Weeks
I ended up missing a few days in a row after my pervious missed check-in to accidentally deleting the notification before checking-in. When I did check-in again I had a questionnaire to fill in for using the service for two weeks. After that, I got a brief chat about equality and coronavirus, then the check-in session was done.
My Impressions Of Woebot
I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any more messages from Woebot after the first two weeks were done, but I got another check-in notification. I continued using Woebot on and off for another week, although I started losing interest in the app. The lack of homework tasks, lack of following up on those tasks, and a lack of teaching you interventions to use, kind of makes the app stale. It’s all well and good learning something in small educational doses, and the examples are good, but it lacks teaching you skills to use. Woebot tells you that the app will teach you CBT skills but then forgets to do just that. Where are the skills?
The best part of the app has to be the daily check-ins where you get to have a short chat each day. At these check-ins, you get the chance to learn something with easy to understand examples. It should help form a habit if you stick to it for long enough and the notifications always arrive.
The rest of the features, for me at least, were a bit of a letdown. Especially when I wanted to talk about stress and instead got a session about anxiety. I know stress can cause anxiety, but some people might have just wanted to learn some stress management information. I know my last two breakdowns that left me suicidal were related to unrelenting stress, which my anxiety disorders didn’t feature in at all.
The app itself is a novel idea, but I feel the company should offer the opportunity to talk to a real counsellor for support as an addition to the automated Woebot. Nevertheless, it’s an easy to use and simple app that could help those with more mild mental health problems or work as a bridge between getting proper counselling support, especially if people are stuck on waiting lists.
Another weird issue with the app was when Woebot asked me to give it a rating before doing a task, whereby I gave it a rating of four for my mood. I was then asked to give another rating after the task, giving it a four again. Yet, for some reason, Woebot started talking about how doing the task had improved my mood, even though I’d reported that I felt exactly the same.
Pros And Cons Of Woebot
- The bot uses friendly chat which makes it feel more natural.
- The app uses easy to understand examples for topics that could be potentially difficult to grasp without them.
- Minimal responses were available for the user. The illusion of being part of a conversation.
- Check-in notifications stopped sending after I tried out one of the additional tasks.
- Woebots replies didn’t always line up with your personal examples, which is understandable, but also to multiple-choice options you’re asked pick from, which is less understandable.
- Lack of homework tasks.
- Underwhelming task recommendations.
- Where were the interventions?
My Woebot Recommendations
They should improve the bot’s replies to their multiple-choice options it gives its users to pick from. It doesn’t make much sense for these replies to be wrong.
Woebot offers this app as a service that companies can buy (like where my partner works), thus, they should add a human counselling service function to the app. This human counsellor could be offered for when you’ve completed the Woebot bot portion of the app. Alternatively, a human counsellor could be offered after you’ve been using the app for a set amount of time. It’d also work as an incentive to keep working through the app.
Multiple check-in notifications. When I was sent my daily notification, I often ignored it until later due to the fact I was already doing something. However, often the notification would disappear (although that could be due to my phone) resulting in me forgetting about checking-in with Woebot. Thus, maybe two notifications to make sure you don’t forget, one following an hour later or something.
Even with there being more cons than pros, I still think it could be a useful app, even though I kind of got bored with it. For now, I’ll give Woebot 3/5 stars, but if they fixed some of the issues I identified and worked on the cons I listed I’d increase that to 4/5 stars.
If you’d like to find out more about Woebot, then you can visit their website here. You can also download the app for iPhone and Android by clicking the buttons below.
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