Much of the discussion about AI tools and mental health has been about using it as a treatment—for example, asking if chatbots could replace therapists. However, I believe that another, less-discussed avenue is whether we can use AI tools, like ChatGPT and other chatbots, for harm reduction.
Depression is a disability like any other. Someone with a broken foot can use crutches to minimize the impairment caused by the broken foot. Though research has not yet studied the effects of ChatGPT on depression, I argue that AI tools could potentially help reduce the impairment caused by the symptoms of depression.
Let me explain some examples I've come across in my day-to-day use of ChatGPT.
1. Simplify complex written material.
Depression affects concentration. You can feed chatGPT long passages of written material and ask it to summarize it.
Funny story: I homeschool my 7-year-old and regularly ask chatGPT to write 400-word passages to explain a particular person or concept to a 7-year-old. Sometimes when I want to understand a concept myself, I still ask it to explain to a 7-year-old!
2. Do mental heavy lifting.
Depression can affect your mental stamina. You may not feel like you have the mental energy to "nut things out" yourself like you usually would when you're not depressed.
AI could potentially help here. For example, if you write an Excel formula and it's not working, you can simply ask a chatbot to fix it. Or you can an AI tool to edit and simplify some writing you've done.
3. Behavioral activation: Accomplishing tasks.
Behavioral activation is a well-studied component of depression treatment. It mainly focuses on reducing avoidance, and increasing activities that provide either a sense of mastery/accomplishment or pleasure.
If you feel overwhelmed by an activity that would help you feel a sense of accomplishment, you could use chatGPT to help you plan out your task—for example, "Create a one-month plan for getting my housework done in 10 minutes a day."
It won't give perfect answers, but it may give a good enough answer to get you unstuck.
4. Behavioral activation: Curiosity, pleasure, and awe.
Positive emotions tend to be muted when someone has depression, but can usually still be stoked. For any topic of interest, you can ask chatGPT about that topic.
For example, I asked for children's books with characters with the same names as my children. I could then check my local library for these books, and read them to my children. I've also asked it for places to go stargazing.
If you're finding it hard to motivate yourself, you may find it easier to ask about activities to do with children—either your own or any you can borrow, like nieces or nephews.
5. Formulating questions can help you organize your thinking.
I've talked about behavioral activation several times. Just formulating questions is a form of behavioral activation. It will help you clarify what you need help and support to do, and what your constraints are.
Example prompt: "Where can I learn about... in (your city)"
6. Escaping tunnel vision.
When people are depressed, they often suffer from tunnel vision and only think about one way of solving a problem. You might think the only way to feel better is for one particular life problem to go away. For example:
- "I won't feel better until my spouse, my boss, my coworker..."
- "I won't feel better until I can become more perfect in my habits, get smarter, fix my self-sabotage..."
A chatbot doesn't think in the way humans do—and that can be a good thing. Even when it gives you an unhelpful answer, that answer may help you see the problem you're trying to solve in a new way.
For example, when I asked ChatGPT to come up with a daily cleaning schedule for a month, it wrote in days off, without me asking for this. That made me think, "Oh, taking days off is a reasonable thing to do; I hadn't considered that."
7. Refining your prompts can help you depersonalize your struggles.
I'm using chatGPT extensively for homeschooling. Because of this, I've gotten a lot of practice at refining the prompts I use. I've learned that the more specific I am, the better. For example, now I use prompts like "Write a 400-word passage to explain the concepts of revenue and profit to a 7-year-old, using a lemonade stand as an example, and write 8 multiple choice questions to test reading comprehension."
Even with quite a bit of practice, I often still have to try multiple phrasings to get it to produce what I'm looking for. With some tinkering, it usually does.
If you ask a human for help to try to figure something out yourself (like how to fix an Excel formula that's not working), it's easy to personalize it if you don't get the help you need. When you ask a chatbot, you can blame the bot and tinker until you can drag out the knowledge you need, in a format that's easy for you.
Formulating very highly specific prompts can be a good exercise in assertiveness and asking for exactly what you want, even though you're asking a bot.
8. Help you simplify your own work or plans.
There are a variety of ways depression can lead to overcomplicating tasks. For example, if you have low self-worth, you might try to make up for that by overdelivering. But this can create problems when the effort is too hard to maintain or too complex for others to understand or help with. To this end, you can ask chatbots to simplify your own work, plans, or ideas.
9. Help you experiment in very low-stakes ways.
Let's say you tend to be very serious when you prepare presentations. With AI, you can play around.
For example, you can ask it to write jokes for presentations or re-write material in a different style. Again, while you're unlikely to get perfect answers, this approach can help stimulate greater diversity in your thinking in ways that would otherwise be difficult when you're depressed.
Exploration and novelty can be anti-depressive. This is true whether that's in a physical sense, like going for a hike, or mentally, like exploring new ways of thinking or doing things. It's hard to simultaneously feel depressed and like you're growing as a person. When you feel a sense of growth, you'll feel less depressed. If you feel like you're in pure survival mode, you'll feel more depressed.
10. Repurpose work you've already done.
If your productivity is currently impaired by depression, you can potentially use AI to remix and repurpose work you've already done. For example, I asked it to pick quotes from some of my published articles for Instagram. (I'm not depressed, but my mind is a bit scattered from looking after a baby and another young child).
If your mind feels foggy because you have depression or you don't have the same stamina for planning, executing, and problem-solving that you usually do, it may be helpful to use AI tools as a support. Hopefully, some of these ideas can help you better understand the impairments depression can cause and how to work around them.