— 2020-11-27

Can Artificial Intelligence replace Therapists?

Every once in a while my husband, a retired professor of biophysics, sends me an article from one of the scientific magazines he reads that he thinks will pique my interest.

This morning it indeed made me sit up and look.

In her article in the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society magazine (May/June 2020), Summer Allen states that 792 million people live with mental health disorders worldwide, and there are not enough mental health professionals to treat all these people. “There are huge unmet needs in psychiatry,” says Murali Doraiswamy, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke University in the USA. Therefore he suggests that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be able to aid and even replace some of the psychiatrist’s and therapist’s functions.

As a therapist, I was forced to sit up and wonder.  Now that we have started to get used to physical distancing and seeing our clients online rather than in person, is the next stage going to be feeding data into a machine which will spew out a “diagnosis” and “treatment plan”  which we will have to follow blindly?  Are we going to be replaced altogether at the next stage of the game? It reminded me of a cartoon I saw a while back which made me crack up, but now does not seem funny any more.  The result of a survey confirmed that mental health professionals by and large are not ready for this kind of a radical change, and frankly I do not think that the people who need mental-health support do either.  “Even the best technology will fail if the end users are not open to it,” says Doraiswamy. So I can heave a big sigh of relief.  My job, from which I am actually officially retired, is not going to be replaced by Zelna or Rose by any other name. Today I am going to see face-to-face a client that I have been seeing for the past 2 months on Skype only.  This is a young man who has difficulties communicating and that is why he was referred to me for art therapy. Needless to say, my stock of art materials is more varied than in this young man’s house, and due to Covid isolation it is not feasible to send him shopping for art materials. So, reluctantly, he used pencil and some crayons.  Last time we met, he said that he did want to continue, but not online.  His home conditions are not ideal for privacy. People are able to listen in, and he is cooped up all day long in the same room. In general he feels unable to open up under these conditions. We found a solution. I agreed to have him come to my back yard with both of us wearing masks, and practicing social distancing.  The setting is unusual, but we have to be flexible to meet the needs of our clients and take care to protect them and ourselves.. Do you think AI is capable of this kind of flexibility?

Speaking of flexibility, this is one of the fundamental teachings we have to convey in therapy.  And as in any teaching it has to come through a personal example.  My father used to tell about a doctor who told his patient “You have to stop smoking, it is bad for your health” and the patient replied “but you smoke!” “Ah,” the doctor said, “no doctor told me not to smoke”.  So it is with flexibility.  Yes, the setting is important.  Yes, taking care of yourself is crucial, and you can figure out how to do it in different ways if you are genuinely open and flexible.  Providing the kind of connection and setting the client needs, as well as showing compassion and flexibility, aids to establish healthy human connections.


S. Allen, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Psychiatry,” in IEEE Pulse, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 2-6, May-June 2020, doi: 10.1109/MPULS.2020.2993657.

— 2020-11-27