Why you should care
It’s like “phone a friend” for peace of mind … from your phone.
When he realizes that he is emotionally “spiraling,” Sam Myrick says he likes to listen to a calm, rational voice — it helps distract from negative thinking. Besides therapy, he’s used a few apps like Headspace and Insight Timer to “soothe the devils of his mind,” but these offered short-term results. It wasn’t until he tried an AI-based chat app that he started feeling “in control of his emotional health.”
Youper is an app that provides mental health tools and insights in an exciting new way: by engaging with the user in quick digital conversations. So unlike traditional apps that might lead you through a mind-calming exercise or simply provide resources, an AI chatbot chats with you like a friend, asking questions and assessing your responses (again, like a friend) with the goal of lessening your anxiety. And it aims to do all this within minutes.
The Youper (“You + Super = Youper”) app was co-created by San Francisco-based psychiatrist Dr. Jose Hamilton in 2016 after he moved to the U.S. from Brazil where he worked with patients battling depression and anxiety. Acknowledging there are many barriers keeping people from seeking help — for example, “Let’s face it: Therapists are expensive,” he says — Hamilton came up with a more affordable (it’s currently free) and convenient solution. He teamed up with co-founders Diego Couto and Thiago Marafon and consulted with doctors, scientists and engineers to create an accessible app that uses psychological techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness in a conversational interface.
Youper’s key feature is its AI-powered ability to chat — users can talk to chatbots anytime about how they’re feeling. “These smaller conversations take your focus away from negative thinking,” Hamilton explains, adding that the company’s research indicates that it takes an average of seven minutes of interaction with a Youper chatbot to feel better.
Once you identify an emotion, it then asks you whether you want to explore what’s making you anxious, stressed or annoyed.
The app, which has been downloaded a million times, also tracks your mood, offers a personality test and features a journaling option and meditations. For the chatbot element, it starts by asking, “How do you feel?” Once you identify an emotion, it then asks you whether you want to explore what’s making you anxious, stressed or annoyed. Over time it monitors your mood and provides insights. And who doesn’t want to know more about themselves?
It’s a feature Myrick definitely appreciates. He says he never previously understood the reasons behind his “good days and bad days.” With the Youper app, he feels more self-aware and can catch himself before moods or situations worsen.
A 34-year-old former U.S. Army officer (who requested anonymity) is seeing a therapist and has also been using Youper for more than a year to help with day-to-day experiences with anxiety and stress. By journaling his emotions, he says that the app helps him to understand his emotions better and brought some darker thoughts to the surface that he hadn’t previously talked about with his therapist.
It goes without saying that an app should not replace professional help for mental health issues — always seek medical advice first. But it can be a powerful tool when used in conjunction with therapy, offering a way to keep tabs on your mood. Mental health apps are increasingly being prescribed “to supplement psychiatric treatment and help patients self-manage their mental health conditions,” according to a study by Pooja Chandrashekar titled “Do mental health mobile apps work.”
Youper isn’t alone in the AI-powered mental health app space. Wysa, Replika and Woebot also engage with and learn about their users. However, the ex-Army officer, who has used a few of these apps, says that Youper feels more personal — like a friend checking in.
And there are plans for making the app even more personalized, Hamilton says. By consulting with medical and technology professionals, as well as analyzing mental health data (collected anonymously), they hope to create more of a personal mental health assistant.
It’s true that an app can’t give you a hug or an encouraging smile, but when that’s not available and you really need to talk to someone, maybe chatting with your phone can be the next best thing.