Just a year ago, Chukurah Ali had fulfilled a dream of owning her own bakery — Coco’s Desserts in St. Louis, Mo. — which specialized in the sort of custom-made ornate wedding cakes often featured in baking show competitions. Ali, a single mom, supported her daughter and mother by baking recipes she learned from her beloved grandmother.
But last February, all that fell apart, after a car accident left Ali hobbled by injury, from head to knee. “I could barely talk, I could barely move,” she says, sobbing. “I felt like I was worthless because I could barely provide for my family.”
As darkness and depression engulfed Ali, help seemed out of reach; she couldn’t find an available therapist, nor could she get there without a car, or pay for it. She had no health insurance, after having to shut down her bakery.
So her orthopedist suggested a mental-health app called Wysa. Its chatbot-only service is free, though it also offers teletherapy services with a human for a fee ranging from $15 to $30 a week; that fee is sometimes covered by insurance. The chatbot, which Wysa co-founder Ramakant Vempati describes as a “friendly” and “empathetic” tool, asks questions like, “How are you feeling?” or “What’s bothering you?” The computer then analyzes the words and phrases in the answers to deliver supportive messages, or advice about managing chronic pain, for example, or grief — all served up from a database of responses that have been prewritten by a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.