Why AI Therapy Isn’t a Substitute for In-Person or Virtual Counseling

This post is written by Danielle Capelle, LCMHC, CCNH’s director of Mental Health Services.

There it was, an advertisement on my computer screen. “AI therapy, no cost!”

I’m not going to lie – my eyes lit up in curiosity, then my body cringed.

I’m well aware of advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). Generative AI has gone mainstream through platforms like chatGPT, BingAI, Bard and others, and it’s clearly more than just the latest technology fad. From creating snazzy photo, developing innovative apps, generating content and dissecting any volume of data, AI is making life easier, smarter and more efficient. There is a lot of benefit with it, much of which we’ve yet to fully discover.

It’s no surprise that AI therapy platforms are becoming increasingly popular, promising convenient and cost-effective solutions for those seeking mental health services.

Can it help? Yes.

But should it be heavily relied on for those seeking services? No offense AI, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Consider this scenario: You develop an illness that you’re unsure about, and you’re deeply concerned. Would you be comfortable typing a prompt to chatGPT to diagnose yourself and trust its response? Or would you rather consult a doctor?

It’s the same logic for mental health.

You may think I’m biased since I’m a mental health counselor and join those across all industries wondering if the robots are coming for our jobs. But my perspective here is only with those we serve – and those in need of mental health services or therapy.

AI therapy is not the best approach for those seeking genuine help and healing. It’s not the best approach to help you deal with overwhelming feelings in your life. And it’s not one to help you cope with a traumatic situation.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why in-person or virtual therapy remains the superior method for addressing mental health struggles.

  1. You can’t automate the human connection: AI therapy cannot replicate the invaluable human connection that exists in traditional counseling settings between a client and counselor. This is a connection built on trust, empathy, and understanding, key pillars to a productive relationship. When working person-to-person, individuals feel heard, validated, and supported. AI therapy is based on pre-programmed responses and algorithms, and lacks the ability to truly comprehend the complexity and depth of human emotions and experiences. The human touch is essential for establishing a productive therapeutic alliance.
  2. AI doesn’t provide a tailored and individualized approach: Each individual’s mental health journey is unique, and personalized care is crucial for effective therapy. In-person or virtual therapy provides the opportunity for counselors to truly understand a client’s needs, circumstances and challenges, and in turn, adapt their approach based on those areas. AI therapy tools, on the other hand, are limited by their standardized nature, unable to provide the necessary customization that human therapists can deliver and clients frankly need.
  3. AI cannot fully simulate compassion or empathy: Dealing with mental health challenges can be an emotional experience. It’s during these moments that the presence of an empathetic and compassionate human being can make a significant difference. Therapists possess the ability to offer emotional support, validate emotions, and provide a safe space for individuals to express themselves freely. While AI therapy tools may attempt to simulate empathy, their responses are ultimately generated by algorithms, again lacking the genuine understanding and emotional connection that a human therapist can offer.
  4. Language isn’t only words: With therapy, body language plays a vital role in understanding a person’s emotions and experiences. In-person and even virtual therapy allow therapists to observe important visual cues, which often convey hidden emotions or underlying issues. AI therapy tools are incapable of recognizing or responding to non-verbal cues, and because of that, may miss critical emotions or underlying issues that need to be addressed.
  5. AI therapy lacks key flexibility and adaptability: While AI therapy may be seen as convenient or more accessible, they often lack the flexibility and adaptability that traditional therapy offers. In-person or virtual therapy sessions can be adjusted to fit a client’s schedule, preferences, and changing needs. Therapists can modify their approach based on progress or setbacks, and they can address new issues that may arise during therapy. AI tools, being automated systems, have inherent limitations in their capacity to adapt and may not effectively address evolving needs and emerging concerns of individuals seeking mental health support.

While generative AI therapy tools may seem enticing and may offer sound advice in some cases, it cannot be viewed as a reliable or effective service model for those seeking mental health services. As mental health counselors, we understand the complexity of human experiences and the importance of a compassionate ear and genuine support. By embracing the power of human connection, we can continue to provide the best possible care for those seeking help and healing.

If you are seeking more human connection, compassion and individualized therapy, we are here to help.

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