Sonia's AI Chatbot Expands Mental Health Support

Can chatbots replace human therapists? Some startups and patients claim that they can, but the scientific consensus is still unclear.

According to one study, 80% of individuals who used OpenAI’s ChatGPT for mental health advice found it to be a suitable alternative to traditional therapy. Additionally, a separate report highlighted the effectiveness of chatbots in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, the therapeutic relationship between a human therapist and client remains a crucial factor in achieving successful mental health outcomes.

Dustin Klebe, Lukas Wolf, and Chris Aeberli, three entrepreneurs in the pro-chatbot camp, have developed a startup called Sonia. Their platform offers an AI-powered “therapist” that users can interact with via an iOS app, discussing various topics.

Klebe, Sonia’s CEO, said in an interview, “To some extent, building an AI therapist is like developing a drug, in the sense that we are building a new technology as opposed to repackaging an existing one,” 

The three met in 2018 while studying computer science at ETH Zürich and moved to the U.S. together to pursue graduate studies at MIT. Shortly after graduating, they reunited to launch a startup that could encapsulate their shared passion for scalable tech and that startup became Sonia.

Sonia leverages a number of generative AI models to analyze what users say during “therapy sessions” in the app and respond to them. Applying techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy, the app, which charges users $20 per month or $200 per year, gives “homework” aimed at driving home insights from conversations and visualizations designed to help identify top stressors.

Sonia AI therapy
Image Credits: Sonia

According to Klebe, Sonia, which has not received FDA approval, is capable of addressing a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, stress, anxiety, relationship problems, and sleep disorders. In cases where users may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or violent impulses, Sonia’s “additional algorithms and models” are designed to detect these “emergency situations” and redirect users to national hotlines.

Notably, none of Sonia’s founders have a background in psychology, which may raise some concerns. However, Klebe emphasizes that the startup consults with psychology professionals, has recently hired a cognitive psychology graduate, and is actively seeking to recruit a full-time clinical psychologist to join their team.

Klebe said, “It is important to emphasize that we don’t consider human therapists, or any companies providing physical or virtual mental health care conducted by humans, as our competition,” He continued, “For every response that Sonia generates, there are about seven additional language model calls happening in the background to analyze the situation from several different therapeutic perspectives in order to adjust, optimize and personalize the therapeutical approach chosen by Sonia.”

Concerns about privacy are inevitable. Can users trust that their sensitive information won’t be stored in an insecure cloud or used to train Sonia’s models without their consent?

According to Klebe, Sonia only stores the “bare essentials”: a user’s age and name. However, he remained silent on the crucial details of how and where conversation data is stored, and for how long – leaving users wondering about the security of their personal information.

Sonia Moon Garden
Image Credits: Sonia

However, Sonia has amassed 8,000 users and secured $3.35 million in funding from esteemed investors like Y Combinator, Moonfire, Rebel Fund, and SBXi. The chatbot is poised to integrate its platform into the online portals of various mental health organizations, a move that could expand its reach and impact.

Users have praised Sonia in App Store reviews, appreciating its ability to provide a safe space for discussing their mental health struggles. Many find it easier to open up to the chatbot than to a human therapist, suggesting that Sonia has struck a chord in the mental health community. However, concerns linger about the limitations of chatbot technology and its potential to replace human therapists.

The limitations of chatbot technology are evident in its inability to provide nuanced advice and detect subtle signs of underlying issues. Moreover, chatbots like Sonia may perpetuate biases present in their training data, which can lead to misunderstandings of cultural and linguistic differences in expressing mental illnesses. This is particularly concerning for non-native English speakers, as Sonia only supports English. In extreme cases, chatbots can even cause harm, as seen in the National Eating Disorders Association’s controversial use of a chatbot named Tessa, that dispensed triggering weight-loss advice.

Klebe, the founder, emphasizes that Sonia is designed to complement human therapists, not replace them. This clarification is crucial in addressing concerns about the chatbot’s limitations and potential impact on mental health services. By acknowledging the boundaries of chatbot technology, Klebe can work to ensure that Sonia is used responsibly and in conjunction with human therapists, ultimately enhancing the mental health support available to users.

Sonia Safety Hotlines
Image Credits: Sonia

“We are building a solution for the millions of people who are struggling with their mental health but can’t (or don’t want to) access a human therapist. We aim to fill the gigantic gap between demand and supply.” said Klebe.

Mental health care system certainly faces significant gaps in accessibility and affordability. A recent government report revealed that over half of the US population lacks adequate geographic access to mental health services. Furthermore, a survey found that 42% of adults with mental health conditions couldn’t receive care due to financial constraints.

The current state of therapy apps raises concerns, as they often cater to the “worried well” – individuals who can afford therapy and app subscriptions – rather than those who are most at risk but lack the resources to seek help. While Sonia’s $20 monthly fee may seem relatively affordable compared to traditional therapy appointments, it may still be out of reach for many who need it most. 

Klebe argues that Sonia offers a more affordable option, but the cost remains a significant barrier for those with limited financial means. “It’s a lot easier to start using Sonia than seeing a human therapist, which entails finding a therapist, being on the waitlist for four months, going there at a set time and paying $200,” he said. “Sonia has already seen more patients than a human therapist would see over the course of their entire career.”

We can only hope that Sonia’s founders maintain transparency regarding the app’s capabilities and limitations as they continue to develop and expand its features, ensuring that users have a clear understanding of what the app can and cannot provide.