An Empathy-Driven, Conversational Artificial Intelligence Agent (Wysa) for Digital Mental Well-Being: Real-World Data Evaluation Mixed-Methods Study

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2018 Nov 23;6(11):e12106. doi: 10.2196/12106.


Background: A World Health Organization 2017 report stated that major depression affects almost 5% of the human population. Major depression is associated with impaired psychosocial functioning and reduced quality of life. Challenges such as shortage of mental health personnel, long waiting times, perceived stigma, and lower government spends pose barriers to the alleviation of mental health problems. Face-to-face psychotherapy alone provides only point-in-time support and cannot scale quickly enough to address this growing global public health challenge. Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled, empathetic, and evidence-driven conversational mobile app technologies could play an active role in filling this gap by increasing adoption and enabling reach. Although such a technology can help manage these barriers, they should never replace time with a health care professional for more severe mental health problems. However, app technologies could act as a supplementary or intermediate support system. Mobile mental well-being apps need to uphold privacy and foster both short- and long-term positive outcomes.

Objective: This study aimed to present a preliminary real-world data evaluation of the effectiveness and engagement levels of an AI-enabled, empathetic, text-based conversational mobile mental well-being app, Wysa, on users with self-reported symptoms of depression.

Methods: In the study, a group of anonymous global users were observed who voluntarily installed the Wysa app, engaged in text-based messaging, and self-reported symptoms of depression using the Patient Health Questionnaire-9. On the basis of the extent of app usage on and between 2 consecutive screening time points, 2 distinct groups of users (high users and low users) emerged. The study used mixed-methods approach to evaluate the impact and engagement levels among these users. The quantitative analysis measured the app impact by comparing the average improvement in symptoms of depression between high and low users. The qualitative analysis measured the app engagement and experience by analyzing in-app user feedback and evaluated the performance of a machine learning classifier to detect user objections during conversations.

Results: The average mood improvement (ie, difference in pre- and post-self-reported depression scores) between the groups (ie, high vs low users; n=108 and n=21, respectively) revealed that the high users group had significantly higher average improvement (mean 5.84 [SD 6.66]) compared with the low users group (mean 3.52 [SD 6.15]); Mann-Whitney P=.03 and with a moderate effect size of 0.63. Moreover, 67.7% of user-provided feedback responses found the app experience helpful and encouraging.

Conclusions: The real-world data evaluation findings on the effectiveness and engagement levels of Wysa app on users with self-reported symptoms of depression show promise. However, further work is required to validate these initial findings in much larger samples and across longer periods.

Keywords: artificial intelligence; chatbots; conversational agents; coping skills; depression; emotions; empathy; mHealth; mental health; resilience, psychological.