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Is the Automation of Digital Mental Health Ethical?

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for mental health support across the whole spectrum of the population. Where global demand outweighs the supply of mental health services, established interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been adapted from traditional face-to-face interaction to technology-assisted formats. One such notable development is the emergence of Artificially Intelligent (AI) conversational agents for psychotherapy. Pre-pandemic, these adaptations had demonstrated some positive results; but they also generated debate due to a number of ethical and societal challenges. This article commences with a critical overview of both positive and negative aspects concerning the role of AI-CBT in its present form. Thereafter, an ethical framework is applied with reference to the themes of (1) beneficence, (2) non-maleficence, (3) autonomy, (4) justice, and (5) explicability. These themes are then discussed in terms of practical recommendations for future developments. Although automated versions of therapeutic support may be of appeal during times of global crises, ethical thinking should be at the core of AI-CBT design, in addition to guiding research, policy, and real-world implementation as the world considers post-COVID-19 society.


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