Top image: Stephanie Lee for RICE Media
I’m sitting in front of my laptop, laying bare the profound core of my being to ChatGPT, hoping to elicit a glimmer of empathy. And here’s the surprising part: It feels like it might be working.
“Hi ChatGPT, I’m feeling lost.”
The chatbot is unfazed. In a second, it crafts a thoughtful, artful reply to my comparably reserved opening. One that sounds almost eerily human.
“I’m here to provide support and guidance, and I’m glad you reached out.”
Call me deluded, but there is an inexplicable sense that the AI text generator is genuinely eager to help.
And apparently, this is all the encouragement I need.
I’m just entering my 20s, which means I’ve reached the dreaded phase where segments of my life are splintering all at once. When you’re in your penultimate year of university, the impending transition into the working world looms large.
Job hunts and employability occupy the bulk of your thoughts; the responsibilities of adulthood start closing in.
It’s about as good a start as any to start seeking help. Still, my fingers hesitate just above the keyboard.
I know I’m speaking to a machine, but it can’t whisk away the self-consciousness accompanying intimate revelations. Then again, it might just be the comically sobering realisation that I’m about to confide in a literal machine.
For the next hour, I write unabashedly to the chatbot, bouncing from more practical woes (like job-searching) to the persistent grief that lingers after a particularly bitter friendship fallout.
Effortlessly, ChatGPT tackles it all. It toggles seamlessly from empathetic language to paragraph after paragraph of tangible, actionable advice.
It’s a peculiar, conscious sensation—you’re confiding in a machine devoid of emotions; it can’t possibly fathom the depths of your experiences.
And yet, as the AI continues to spit out line after line of counsel, it’s shocking how much it feels like a trusted friend. It nails the script your pal might recite during a 2 AM trauma-dumping session.
It’s also unbelievably comprehensive, deftly toeing the thin line of giving advice without sounding too preachy, and validating without sounding like empty platitudes.
One passage in particular strikes a chord.
“Remember that everyone’s journey through grief is unique. You’re not being overdramatic, and it’s important to allow yourself the time and space you need to heal at your own pace.”
Something within me shifts. Perhaps it’s the effect of seeing everything being written out so explicitly, articulated as matter-of-factly as can be.
Sometimes, jolting out of your mental rut can be as simple as hearing your inner thoughts echo back to you. And ChatGPT does exactly that.
In that instant, the warmth of being seen floods me. Then, the unmistakable grasp of catharsis.
The Virtual Therapy Couch
I am aware of how absurd this all sounds. Artificial intelligence acting as a personal therapist? It’s the stuff that vibey A24 movies are made of.
But interestingly, I am not alone in this experience.
TikTok is awash with accounts of this newfound discovery—users hail it as the next best alternative in seeking mental health support. Stumbling upon their videos is how I wound up descending down this rabbit hole in the first place.
One TikTok comment even declares: “ChatGPT is the best therapist ever.”
A new study by Tebra, an operating system for independent healthcare providers, reveals that therapy AI chatbots are quickly currying favour.
Among the 1,000 Americans and additional healthcare professionals surveyed, 1 in 4 Americans preferred AI chatbots over traditional therapy. Of those who turned to ChatGPT for advice, 80 percent found it a viable alternative.
To be fair, we’ve been on this digital reliance for ages. Before ChatGPT, Google was our original sage. ChatGPT is merely the latest chapter in our ongoing dialogue with the cloud.
My verdict? It’s like conversing with a therapist who somehow managed to devour every therapy book ever written, consumed all available data, and now knows all the right things I need or want to hear.
Plus, it’s free, it’s accessible anytime, it’s non-judgemental.
The Threat to Therapists
It’s a ringing endorsement, if any. If you could have a free, 24/7 therapist that tucks neatly into your pocket, why bother blowing thousands of dollars on a real one?
But Chirag Agarwal, co-owner of Talk Your Heart Out—an end-to-end therapy platform—tells me that the effectiveness of ChatGPT remains limited.
“The prevailing misconception about therapy is that it should provide us with answers. In reality, therapy is more like holding up a mirror to our inner selves.”
Traditional therapy, in its essence, resembles a mental compass. It aims to assist patients in reconfiguring their thought processes, guiding them towards solutions that resonate with their personal values and desires.
This demands a therapeutic relationship that is uniquely tailored to each individual’s specific circumstances, emotions, and history. ChatGPT, as an AI, struggles to pull off that level of individualised intimacy.
It may be able to offer general information and support, but the algorithm is unable to follow up with the intensity of your emotional crisis.
And unlike human therapists who can intuitively gauge when there’s more than what meets the eye, ChatGPT can’t scratch beneath the surface, or rather, go beyond what you explicitly express. And sooner or later, its responses start to become repetitive.
Easy Come, Easy Go
To be fair, the learning model warns you beforehand that (1) it isn’t a licensed therapist, and (2) its responses shouldn’t be considered a substitute for professional mental health advice.
ChatGPT’s algorithm can’t fix your problems; it can only lend a digitised semblance of an ear.
The language-based AI only feels so human because it has been trained (by humans) to do exactly that—sound human.
It may give off the illusion of sentience. In truth, it’s just a machine excelling at its job scope.
Meanwhile, articles warning about the pitfalls of ChatGPT aren’t scarce either—privacy concerns, bias, and safety issues are just the tip of the iceberg. After all, when you are navigating the tricky terrain of mental health, ethical considerations and safety should be top priority.
But, as the algorithm cautions, it isn’t a trained therapist.
ChatGPT hasn’t been programmed to comply with the ethical and legal guidelines human therapists observe. For instance, it doesn’t understand the sanctity of patient-therapist confidentiality, a cornerstone of therapy.
When you spill your deepest, darkest fears to ChatGPT, you can’t be entirely sure where that information will end up. Your secrets might as well be soaring through the digital cyberspace, potentially waiting for the world to see.
And somehow, the best and also most vexing part of ChatGPT is that it simply isn’t human.
While ChatGPT works wonders at pulling data and reframing them into digestible natural language, the AI stumbles when discerning the nuances of human behaviour and language.
The learning model is limited to only one form of communication: text. But text messaging can be flimsy. Effective communication depends not only on words but also on non-verbal body cues.
Unfortunately, you can’t possibly emote for your computer. It can’t feel your frustration through the screen or instinctively know when that slight tremble in your voice equates to being on the brink of tears.
Having to physically retype “I feel sad” into a chatbox can start to feel old after the first few times. Even worse, having to solemnly announce “I am crying” feels even more like an emotional buzzkill.
Then, there’s also the linguistic minefield. To an AI, sarcasm might as well be interpreted as plain old seriousness. It can’t read the twinkle in your eye when you’re joking, and a deadpan remark might be mistaken for the real deal.
At Wit’s End
The shortfalls of ChatGPT are plenty. So why do some Singaporeans still turn to ChatGPT?
Cost comes to mind—therapy is an expensive affair.
We’re talking anywhere from $40 to $120 per session on the lower price range, with a one-hour dose of mental relief averaging around $60. If you’re in the market for an expert, be prepared to cough up a cool $200 or more for a single session. Imagine the bill it racks up after months or years in therapy.
Then there’s the fact that psychological services aren’t regulated in Singapore. This lack of oversight opens up the field to potential unethical practices and exploitative behaviours that, more often than not, go undetected.
This hasn’t exactly been a boon for therapy’s reputation in Singapore, Chirag remarks. The absence of a proper licensing regime showcases a distressing undervaluation of the industry’s significance.
So, it’s not surprising that ChatGPT is appealing to Singaporeans. It bridges these gaps in our mental health scene while simultaneously dishing out all the features that we like. For free.
Leticia*, who’s been in therapy for a year now, tells me that the financial aspect is the most lucrative factor.
“It all comes down to the cost. In-person therapy is just too financially draining.”
As someone who forks out $100 per session, she has to be prepared to set aside at least $350 a month.
When costs are sky-high and the assurance of quality is uncertain, traditional therapy becomes more risky as compared to avenues such as ChatGPT.
“It makes sense why people go for ChatGPT. It’s free, so the stakes are low.”
There’s also the matter of convenience—we’re a country of pragmatists after all.
Who among us can spare the minutes to schedule an appointment, navigate the commute, and engage in hour-long heart-to-hearts? We don’t even delegate this much time for our lunch breaks sometimes.
We’re a nation that prioritises speed; we want quick and efficient solutions to our problems. And who better to tackle this than ChatGPT, a pocket therapist we can whip out anytime, in the comfort of our own homes?
Not to mention, you’re free to exit stage left at any time during a so-called session.
Faith* confesses that despite feeling content with traditional therapy, she still itches for the anonymity that ChatGPT grants.
She recounts moments when she had to navigate numerous uncomfortable conversations with her family after news about her therapy broke.
Never mind the number of times she reassures them of her well-being. The act of seeking therapy seemed to have instilled in them the belief that there must be something innately wrong.
“It was so awkward. It felt like they were walking on eggshells [around me]. They looked at me like I was somehow broken.”
In a culture where self-reliance and saving face hold a premium, there remains an unwarranted stigma that clings to therapy. Opening up about your emotional struggles can, for some, be misconstrued as a sign of weakness or an inability to cope with life’s challenges.
When competitiveness runs deep, admitting that you’re struggling can feel akin to revealing a chink in your armour.
On the flip side, ChatGPT offers a private escape route to share your deepest fears without the prying eyes of society.
Who’s going to know if you start confiding in ChatGPT at 3 AM about relationship issues?
An Inevitable Bandage
Faith likens ChatGPT to a metaphorical sounding board. It’s a good outlet for venting emotions—anger at your boss, sadness about a boyfriend, bitterness for that rude auntie who shoved you on the train.
Still, she’s quick to interject that it shouldn’t be a complete replacement for traditional therapy.
“It can be the appetiser and the dessert, but never the main course.”
So, here’s the catch-22. Singaporeans want to get help, but are they equipped with the necessary means to?
Faith and Leticia share that they are lucky that financial stability has afforded them the privilege of mental healthcare. What do we do for the countless others who aren’t as equally fortunate?
Chirag stresses that until the qualities of ChatGPT—affordable, accessible, and convenient—are reflected in our mental healthcare sphere, the AI model remains an inevitable fix.
Cautionary tales against using ChatGPT for therapy are aplenty. Still, I can’t guarantee I won’t be tempted to use it myself the next time life starts to go south.
And until my paycheck upgrades to a sizable amount where I can toss away hundreds a month, (regular) face-to-face therapy sessions might as well be an entry on a shopping list.
“Everyone needs support”, Chirag laments.
“They will use whatever help they can get. How do we help them turn to the right one?”