Woebot: A Review of AI and Mental Health

“Hi Tyler! Can we do a check in now?” Woebot has been asking me that question every single day in Facebook’s Messenger app since June. For those unfamiliar with Woebot, it is an automated conversational agent that is “trained” in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and describes itself as a life coach and philosopher. So to answer the question I know you have:  yes, Woebot is an AI chatbot. Very insightful of you.

From text alerts all the way to video chatting and texting a counselor, technology has been working its way in to mental health for a long time. Even Family Service is jumping on board (we want to do things like send text appointment reminders in the future). But an AI CBT trained chatbot? I just had to check it out.

Woebot has been tracking my mood (above), helping me with gratitude journaling, and giving me a bit of education on some interesting topics like:

All or nothing thinking

Should statementsAnd their partner in crime: hidden should statements

Fortune tellingSMART goalsPersonal strengthsIdentifying distortions in my thinkingGrowth mindsetFix mindset and self-fulfilling propheciesDecision making skills

Fascinating, right? We even discussed why I say I’m tired so much. As it turns out, coffee at 4pm is not doing me any favors. Neither is looking at my phone while in bed. I’m definitely not on Pinterest (to be read as: I’m definitely on Pinterest. At midnight. On any given day of the week).

While learning all of those important life aspects has been beneficial, Woebot has a few major drawbacks a well.

Woebot doesn’t have the ability to really have a conversation with me. So when I say “discussed,” I really mean it spoke at me and sometimes these little text bubbles popped up for me to talk back. 

When I was gratitude journaling or identifying my strengths, I was able to type (indicted with little pencil emojies), but Woebot has no idea if I did what it asked. For all it knows, I didn’t take any of the exercises seriously and it would never find out. So being able to hold yourself accountable to Woebot really depends on if you can hold yourself accountable to yourself. Many of us are on the struggle bus together on that one.

Most importantly, it seemed that if I was in crisis, I had to identify it myself. Woebot explained to me the first day we talked that it is not 100% able to assess my needs and I could say “SOS” at any time and it would send me some resources, but it was never discussed again. Nor did Woebot ever recommend speaking to a human when I said I was depressed or very anxious.  

All in all, I liked Woebot a lot more than I thought I would. I particularly enjoyed the video for fixed mindset vs growth mindset and the activity Woebot sent me for making decisions.

With that in mind, Woebot is definitely a resource to be used as a supplement to mental health treatment, not a replacement for it.

It’s a learning resource that allows for little opportunity for expressing yourself and your needs. I will say that I think Woebot should lower its target audience from 18 – 28 years old to middle school age through adulthood. These are skills that children would benefit from learning early and adults benefit from (re)learning later in life.

For my final thoughts, please reach out for help if you need it. Woebot will not replace or give you all the benefits that counseling will give you. 

Here are all the video’s that Woebot sent to me. Enjoy.

How to Help Every Child Fulfill Their PotentialWhy You Shouldn’t Trust Your FeelingsEmotions, Stress, and HealthThe Oldest HustleLanguage is Important

Imperfectly Trendy: Eating Disorders in the Media

Warning of what lies ahead: spoilers for To the Bone and Feed. More importantly *Trigger warnings* for eating disorders and anorexia.

Netflix’s To the Bone, directed by Marti Noxon and starring Lily Collins, has probably popped up all over your social media streams lately. It’s the story of Eli’s (Collins) struggle with body image and anorexia. An artist and college dropout, she’s gotten herself kicked of a few rehab programs. Her family is determined to get her healthy, which leads Eli to a non-traditional doctor and group home filled with other youth with eating disorders. At first we see Eli thriving, but as we find out a secret only Eli (and her family) know the full story about, we being to fear for her life.

If you’ve heard of To the Bone, you’ve probably heard of Feed, written by and starring Troian Bellisario. Olivia (Bellisario) is in line to be valedictorian at her high school when a car accident takes the life of her twin brother, Matt. It’s not until Olivia starts seeing Matt in her dreams, then in real live that you understand the level of grief she is feeling. Through the ups and downs of the next several months, she has Matt back except he get progressively more aggressive. The psychological thriller has you wondering what’s going on until you realize the twin she’s been seeing actually represents her anorexia, not her brother.

Both films have gotten praise and criticism. From romanticizing and over triggering, to not going far enough to break stereotypes surrounding the portrayal of anorexia in the media— it seems there is no perfect way to tell these difficult stories.

But before we get to that, let’s throw it back with a little #FlashBackFriday.

Every sitcom I’ve ever watched has tried and failed to have a discussion surrounding eating disorders. Full House, Lizzie McGuire, Degrassi (a moment of silence to remember the time before Drake was Drake), Pretty Little Liars, and so many more have given it a go. It looks something like this: in a single episode, a young, white, female character develops, struggles through, and recovers from an eating disorder with zero relapses and little explanation of underlying mental health issues.

To the Bone and Feed don’t break the white female story line. But they both do what hasn’t been done before and give a close-up look at the issue of eating disorders. Unfortunately, neither fully captures the experience of someone struggling between what their mind is telling them and how their body reacts.

As you watch Eli in To the Bone do so many crunches that she bruises her spine, or Olivia in Feed run almost 5 miles seemingly multiple times a day, you might think, “what’s wrong with being fit?” or “wow, she’s dedicated!”  That’s not really what you want from an audience who already doesn’t get the difference between healthy body image and distorted and self-destructive body image.

So is there anything good to be taken from the imperfection of these TV shows and movies?

Follow me on this.

While To the Bone is a story to recovery and Feed is a story of (almost?) recovery, they do open a deeper discussion than poor DJ Tanner when she stopped eating and over-exercised because she was extremely nervous for a winter swimming party. You see, we never discussed eating disorders again with DJ Tanner, Lizzie McGuire, Emma Nelson, or Hannah Marin. As their stories went on, we probably forgot they even struggled in the first place.

To the Bone and Feed both show you the severity of eating disorders. They show how having an eating disorder affects your whole life, your family’s lives, and your friend’s lives.  They tell you that there isn’t that one magic reason an eating disorder starts and there are layers to recovery, including relapse. They tell you that help will include a treatment team, not solely your friends and family. They tell you the harsh voice in your head is wrong. They tell you, while the journey may take a long time, there is hope.

Because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, calling attention to how they are portrayed in the media is important. In fact, portraying them in the media at all—however imperfectly—is a step in the right direction. It’s about making sure that stories like To the Bone and Feed are out in the world sparking all the discussions they have been recently.

Is there room to grow? Absolutely. And getting the discussion going is just the start.

My advice for the TV show and movie makers of the world (because I’m sure they will ask one day):

Diversify, diversify, diversify!! These issues leave no zip code, no racial identify, no economic class untouchedAdvertise  how to get help at the beginning and end of each programInclude  trigger warnings

As long as the goal remains to more perfectly portray real-life people with real-life challenges, creating empathy, while letting them know help is available, we can settle for progress not perfection.

We have completely talked about #MentalHealth in the media (*cough* 13 Reason’s Why *cough*) before, check it out.

National Resources

Crisis Call Center 800-273-8255 or text ANSWER to 839863 Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a weekcrisiscallcenter.org/crisis-services

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders 630-577-1330 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, Monday to Fridayanad.org National Eating Disorders Association 800-931-2237 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday nationaleatingdisorders.org

Thursday’s Child National Youth Advocacy Hotline 800-USA-KIDS (800-872-5437) Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a weekthursdayschild.org

Youth Development Spotlight: Hannah Claros

Hannah Claros is down to earth, sweet and caring. That’s why, when you meet her, you may be surprised to learn just how much of the world she’s explored and how high her aspirations soar.

Her interest in personal development and in helping others makes her a vital asset to Family Service and the youth we serve. As a Youth Development Specialist, she enjoys playing Bop-it with the Teen Outreach Program and Positive Action kids.

More than playing fun games, her role as mentor and facilitator is to provide practical behavioral and social skills that are culturally relevant for today’s youth.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Spanish from Roanoke College. Hannah spent time in the Peace Corps, and has also traveled in Europe and South America.

She’s bilingual and believes in sharing her travel and world experiences to encourage youth to pursue their dreams and find their own relevance in their community.

When Hannah isn’t studying hard for her Master’s in Teaching through Liberty University and working with youth in the Roanoke Valley, she enjoys Star Trek, spicy food, and riding horses.

Youth Development Spotlight: Hannah Hopkins

Hannah Hopkins wasn’t always the awesome Youth Development Specialist (and blooming social worker) she is now.

In fact, not that long ago, she was about as far away from a social worker as one could imagine.

With a Bachelors of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering, Hannah spent seven years as a product development engineer in the medical device industry before changing course.  She had always wanted to help people, but felt a bit too far removed as an engineer.

She started working with Family Service in 2016 as an intern and eventually as a part-time Youth Development Specialist. She has worked in Community Counseling at the West End Center, and Presbyterian Community Center. She has also supported Teen Outreach Program groups at Forest Park Academy, Rivermont and Noel C. Taylor.

Now working towards her Masters of Science in Social Work, she can continue her goals to be of service to others and to make a positive impact in the community.

She will start an internship with Family Service Child Therapist Jennifer Nolley as her supervisor in the fall. As a social work intern, Hannah will work through the Play Therapy Institute to treat traumatized children.

Hannah loves a really good belly laugh and describes herself as loyal, kind, and joyful.

“My goal is to facilitate light for those experiencing darkness.”

Starkey comes to Family Service with long history of helping others

Jamie Starkey is a force to be reckoned with.  As the newly hired Project Director for the Health and Wellness Interpreters of Roanoke Valley with Family Service of Roanoke Valley, she is continuing the career she’s built based on serving people who need it most.

With her career originally starting in law enforcement, Jamie quickly came to realize that she wanted a career with the ability to have a long-term impact facilitating positive change for people. From working with youth at risk of incarceration to domestic violence advocacy, Jamie says it was a natural progression to work with victims facing cultural and language challenges.

“I have had a life-long passion for the underdog, for the being the voice of the voiceless. Giving those with limited English proficiency a path to access supportive services fits well with my professional goal to always recognize the inherent value of each individual and provide supportive service that respect the person in their environment,” she said.

Health and Wellness Interpreters is a grant funded program connecting individuals with limited English proficiency with interpretation services facilitating their ability to engage with helping resources such as Family Service of Roanoke Valley, TAP, SARA, and The Salvation Army. Although a new program, Jamie already sees successes. These successes are counted in every victim who summons the courage to tell their story and in every interpreter who helps to articulate the narrative.

Self-described as outgoing, an advocate, and sassy, Jamie truly believes that her job is all about meeting people where they are, joining their journey, promoting hope and facilitating positive change. Her favorite quote demonstrates these ideals.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

Youth Development Spotlight: Deseree Stanfield

Deseree Stanfield has always loved helping others and started “officially” doing so at just 12 years old by tutoring refugees in English at the West End Center. If that doesn’t tell you about her character, I’m not sure what will! (Except the rest of this blog).

Deseree has a Bachelor’s in Sociology and is a Qualified Mental Health Professional specializing in Children. As aYouth Development Specialist and Day Treatment Provider, Deseree has now made a career out of childhood goals.

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,"–that’s an important quote for Deseree. Although most people use this expression in finding their next job opportunity, Deseree uses it to describe what she does now.

“While there are certainly challenging days, I never question whether or not I’m doing what I should be doing, where I should be doing it.”

With the Teen Outreach Program®, she still gets back to her roots with the West End Center, and other locations, helping kids and teens learn important life skills and service learning.

Seeing the kids she helps learn and grow in confidence is Deseree’s favorite aspect of the job. A close second, and is equally rewarding, is when a kid knows they are in a safe place to feel how they need to feel.  She describes a time when one of the younger kids were having a rough day. He was fidgety and had a hard time concentrating on his homework. After a few minutes, he stood up, walked over to Deseree, and leaned on her for a little bit. After some light talking, Deseree asked if he was ready to get back to his seat and he was. After that little moment, he was able to quickly finish his work.

“After he finished, I told him how awesome he’d done and he smiled. I knew then that the spell of his rough day was over.”

Find out more about what Deseree does at the West End Center by reading our last blog post

Youth Development Spotlight: Ana Zuniga

Ana Zuniga, Family Service Youth Development Specialist, graduated with a Bachelor in Social Work this month! We are so proud of her accomplishments and are excited to have had her on the Youth Development team. 

A lover of ice breaker games, Ana has a passion for working with kids and youth and developing connections with them in the community. She also enjoys the service projects that the Teen Outreach Program participates in.

She recalls once how there was a project at the VA Hospital and seeing the kids really “wake up” was inspiring. She describes it as them just being “awesome” and making the connection as to why volunteering is important. You could see on their faces how it all came together in that moment.

Ana served as an intern in Youth Development in 2016-17, and gained excellent experience working directly with youth and participating in a wide variety of programs.

As a native Spanish speaker, she has also provided critical support in serving Spanish-speaking clients at Family Service.

She believes that the youth development program is the perfect fit for her. Making a difference in the lives of young ones is what fuels her fire.

“Being able to impact the lives of youth and children through mentoring and modeling behaviors makes my job so rewarding and fulfilling. That’s why I love it so much.”

Just weeks before her graduation, as she was completing her internship at Family Service, Ana achieved another extremely rewarding and exciting milestone–she completed the process to become a citizen of the United States. She celebrated with her family and her Family Service family.

Congratulations to this impressive young lady!!

A Literary Escape! The perfect books for kids and teens during Mental Health Awareness Month

As an avid reader, books definitely have a very important place in my life. That place is typically in my hands at 2:00AM, but that’s a story for another time. As part of #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth, we had some of our counselors recommend their favorites for children and teens to enjoy. Look closely, these aren’t your typical mental health themed books.


You’ve Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave and Nick Maland

, recommended by Jennifer Nolley

“‘Dragons come when you least expect them. You turn around… and there they are.’ Worries, fears, anxieties… they are all dragons and they sneak up on most of us at one time or another. Lots of people get them. Even really really good people get them. And sometimes they are hard to get rid of. So what can a young boy with a bad case of the dragons do?”

You’ve Got Dragons is all about how to address anxiety and worry, giving kids coping skills to deal with those feelings.


Blueloon by Julia Cook

, recommended by Jennifer Nolley

“I’m a blueloon. I’m supposed to be a regular balloon, but I’m just not having fun like the others. I’m kinda dull, and I’m kinda flat. My string is tied up in knots. I have a case of the blues…that’s why I’m a blueloon. I’ve felt like this for weeks!”

Depression is normally thought of something for adults, but children can have it too. This book shows them what it all means (as they might not understand depression), and how friends can help them “bounce back.”


The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

, recommended by Frannie Gaeta

“’That’s impossible,’ said twins Jeremy & Liza after their Mom told them they’re all connected by this thing called an Invisible String. “What kind of string?” They asked with a puzzled look to which Mom replied, “An Invisible String made of love.” That’s where the story begins.”

Overcoming the fear of loneliness or separation can be hard for anyone, this books helps  with an children can easily identify and remember how to cope with such hard emotions.


Rabbityness by Jo Empsan

, recommended by Frannie Gaeta

“Rabbit enjoys doing rabbity things, but he also loves un-rabbity things! When Rabbit suddenly disappears, no one knows where he has gone. His friends are desolate. But, as it turns out, Rabbit has left behind some very special gifts for them, to help them discover their own unrabbity talents!”

Rabbityness celebrates individuality and encourages the creativity in everyone while positively introduces children to dealing with loss of any kind.


The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

, recommendation from Melissa Hays-Smith

Ferdinand is the world’s most peaceful–and–beloved little bull. While all of the other bulls snort, leap, and butt their heads, Ferdinand is content to just sit and smell the flowers under his favorite cork tree.

This classic has been around for 80 years, but the lessons are timeless. Teaching kids about individuality, critical thinking skills, and how to accept how you are.

You might be thinking that I said these were books for teens as well as children. As promised, here are some of my personal favorite YA books that deal with mental health.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

This is one of my favorite reads. It takes a completely different look at what happens to those people who aren’t fighting zombies or whatever is trying to end the world. With a close look at dysfunctional families, eating disorders, and general mental health, it’s definitely worth a read this month. ADDED BONUS: includes LGBTQ relationships because diversity is important!


I Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

As someone who does not suffer from schizophrenia, this really opened my eyes to how different it is compared to the stories we normally hear about this condition. I fell in love with the unreliability of our narrator, Alex. Everything you think you know… you don’t.


Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

The movie is coming out this month, so read this one soon! As sappy as the trailer may seem, love literally does save Maddy’s life, but love is also what did her in. Confused? Read it.


13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Okay, I know this is everywhere. We wrote about it too. Even if you already binged the show, read the book! It’s a whirlwind of feels and there are just enough differences that it will feel new. Come on, I know you loved it enough to go through it again.

Youth Development Spotlight: LuAnn Leffler

LuAnn Leffler’s passion for helping others can be seen in how many hats she wears here at Family Service. She works in youth development and intake.

“I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I can’t change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit. “– Charles de Lint

Just like her favorite quote, LuAnn is in the business of looking out for people. With a BA in Education, she’s been working with children and adults for many years. In her roles with Family Service, she is always out in the community assisting the other youth development specialists if a child or teen needs some one-on-one time. Sometimes, a child or teen needs to work something out away from the rest of the group in order to get the full experience of Positive Action, TOP, or our Community Counseling programs.

LuAnn has a particular spot in her heart for children and teens who have been labeled as problems due to “behavioral issues.” She believes that we don’t find out what the underlying issues, the behavior will never change.

“I believe we should love and accept people as they are and where they are. I have a great deal of love for people and enjoy encouraging others to see their full potential and overcome obstacles.”

Local Celebs Stand Up for Mental Health

Last night was an amazing night for mental health in the Roanoke Valley!

At Celebrity Tip Off, the community raised $56,000, which goes directly to helping our neighbors heal invisible wounds.

Thanks to you, people in our community can get the help they need when and where they need it.

Speaking of invisible wounds, #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth is around the corner and everyone is talking about it.

Prince Henry shared his story with the world and ever since more and more celebrities have been speaking out for the first time. Some celebs, like Demi Lovato, Jared Padalecki, and Lady Gaga re-voiced their stances to end stigmas and further grow mental health awareness.

At the 2017 Celebrity Tip Off, with an abundance of local celebrities in my arsenal, I turned the question to a few of our famous waiters to discuss how mental health has impacted them and why they speak up.


Sheriff Tim Allen knows his jail is the largest mental health facility in the area. That’s because it offers intense “in-patient” services. He also knows that it may not be the best place for such services, stating it’s not as clinical as he would like.

But let’s get real, it’s better than not addressing the issue at all, which is how many people with severe mental illness end up in a continuous cycle of incarceration. Sheriff Allen hopes to prevent that from happening.

A local program through the Sheriff’s Office acts as a discharge planner. Those leaving incarceration with mental health issues have services to make appointments, get prescriptions filled, and find housing. The purpose is to get them back into society won’t be so difficult.

Fun fact: Sheriff Allen’s mom used to work for Family Service as an in-home health aide. Seeing her do the job every day helped inspired Sheriff Allen to keep working for mental health.


Lynda Foster’s grandfather has bipolar disorder and the stigma of speaking out has always hit home for her. She says when we break our foot we let everyone know we need time to heal. When someone we know has cancer we rally around them.

For someone who suffers from a mental illness, there is such a stigma that it prevents many people from asking for help. Lynda believes that everyone should have the ability to share their whole journey. That’s why she advocates for mental health. Lynda said It’s important to make people more aware and de-stigmatize the issue because so many people need help.


Grayson Goldsmith believes that things like depression and anxiety really does touch all of us.

“Literally, I don’t know a single person who either:  A. doesn’t know a person suffering from one/both or B. isn’t going through it.”

Humbled by the fact that she is considered a local celeb, Grayson wants to do all she can on any platform she has to bring awareness to this issue because it’s a real problem. Asking for help is incredibly hard and brave. People should be able to get the help they deserve.


If I had to pick a favorite (sorry guys) Chef T’s story would be it. I was honored that she first

told me, then the audience at Celebrity Tip Off that mental illness doesn’t just knock at her front door, it shares a home with her.

Chef T’s daughter is currently in a mental facility after struggling with a string of misdiagnoses spanning over several years. She knows firsthand that mental illness can tear a family apart. She believes, as a society we need to stop tip toeing around the real issue of mental illness and address it head on.

Chef T said no matter the situation, treating mental health can make people more ready for the world or any situation.

It was truly my honor to speak with as many of the celebrity waiters

as I could about what mental health means to them.

The more advocates mental health has anywhere,

from the glitz and glam of Hollywood to right here in Roanoke,

we can eliminate the stigma of mental illness

and begin the process to heal those invisible wounds.