To chat or bot to chat: Ethical issues with
using chatbots in mental health
, Kobi Leins
, Susie Sheldrick
, Marc Cheong
and Simon D’Alfonso
This paper presents a critical review of key ethical issues raised by the emergence of mental health chatbots. Chatbots use
varying degrees of artiﬁcial intelligence and are increasingly deployed in many different domains including mental health.
The technology may sometimes be beneﬁcial, such as when it promotes access to mental health information and services.
Yet, chatbots raise a variety of ethical concerns that are often magniﬁed in people experiencing mental ill-health. These eth-
ical challenges need to be appreciated and addressed throughout the technology pipeline. After identifying and examining
four important ethical issues by means of a recognised ethical framework comprised of ﬁve key principles, the paper offers
recommendations to guide chatbot designers, purveyers, researchers and mental health practitioners in the ethical creation
and deployment of chatbots for mental health.
chatbots, artiﬁcial intelligence, ethics, mental health, data privacy
Submission date: 7 February 2023; Acceptance date: 5 June 2023
The rapid rise of chatbots in information and service provi-
sion by businesses, government agencies and non-proﬁt
has inevitably touched the domain of mental
health. As benign as they may ﬁrst appear, chatbots raise
ethical issues. Mental health chatbots that offer information,
advice and therapies have the potential to beneﬁt patients
and the general public, but they also have the capacity to
harm vulnerable individuals and communities.
regarded as unethical may also damage the reputation of
individuals and organisations who deploy them. Like
some other digital tools, chatbots raise a range of speciﬁc
ethical issues such as privacy, transparency, accuracy,
safety and accountability.
The importance of these
ethical issues will only grow as chatbots get more
This paper provides a critical ethical overview of chat-
bots that provide information, advice and therapies to
users in regard to mental health. It examines ethical issues
for the design and deployment of these mental health chat-
bots and provides recommendations to guide their respon-
sible development and use. The paper should be useful
for chatbot designers, purveyers, researchers and mental
health practitioners who seek a clear and solid framework
for understanding and/or navigating the ethical issues that
mental health chatbots create.
Chatbots have been deﬁned as ‘any software application
that engages in a dialog with a human using natural lan-
Other terms for chatbots include dialogue agents,
conversational agents and virtual assistants.
scholarly work has identiﬁed several ethical advantages
and challenges of chatbots and similar technologies,
and some works have offered ethical guidelines or frame-
works relevant to mental health chatbots. For example,
Wykes et al. examined ethical issues for a range of
mental health technologies including health apps using
School of Computing and Information Systems, The University of Melbourne
Department of War Studies, King’s College London
Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne
Simon D’Alfonso, School of Computing and Information Systems, The
University of Melbourne, Grattan Street, Parkville, Victoria, 3010, Australia.
Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.
org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is
attributed as speciﬁed on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Volume 9: 1–11
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
the principles of privacy and data security, good develop-
ment practices, feasibility and the health beneﬁts of such
Luxton et al.’s discussion of ethical consid-
erations raised by intelligent machines for mental healthcare
drew on work in robot and machine ethics as well as on pro-
fessional ethical codes for mental health professionals.
Meanwhile, Lederman et al. applied the classic four-
principle ethical framework from medical ethics to a spe-
ciﬁc mental health intervention platform that some of
those authors were developing.
Our aim in this paper is to provide a critical review of
ethical considerations regarding mental health chatbots in
general. In contrast to other ethical discussions about
chatbot-style technologies such as those just mentioned
we employ the recent ﬁve-principle frame-
work developed within artiﬁcial intelligence (AI) ethics.
This framework incorporates the classic and widely
accepted four-principle framework from medical ethics,
but it also adds to it by means of a ﬁfth principle of ‘explic-
ability’which accommodates special features of intelligent
The paper runs as follows. We ﬁrst provide some general
background about the history of chatbot development (Section
II). We then canvas the operation of chatbots in mental health
and observe some beneﬁts and challenges
(III). Next we
explain and then utilise an established and helpful ethical
framework from medial and AI ethics (IV) to analyse core
issues raised by mental health chatbots (V). Finally, we
provide ethical recommendations that apply throughout the
technology pipeline from inception to chatbot retirement
(VI), with the aim of giving practical assistance to chatbot
designers, mental health practitioners, researchers, etc. for
ensuring that mental health chatbots are constructed and
implemented in ethically defensible ways. Section VII sum-
marises the discussion.
Background to chatbots
Some general background about the history of chatbots will
help in understanding their ethical implications in mental
healthcare. Chatbots generally depend on some degree of
natural language processing (NLP). NLP uses computing
and statistical techniques, which these days often involves
machine learning (ML), to ‘interpret’human language
and provide intelligible responses to human language
The very ﬁrst NLP computer program was
created by Joseph Weizenbaum, a German–American com-
puter scientist considered a father of modern AI. Named
ELIZA, this ‘chatterbot’simulated a Rogerian therapist
(relating to the system of therapy developed by the psych-
ologist Carl Rogers) by demonstrating ‘the responses of a
non-directional psychotherapist in an initial psychiatric
Weizenbaum aimed to show that ‘commu-
nication between man and machine was superﬁcial’.
Unexpectedly, however, Weizenbaum’s assistant, though
aware of the machine’s purpose and limitations, began dis-
closing personal matters and forming a superﬁcial relation-
ship with ELIZA.
This led Weizenbaum to warn that
human engagement with even limited technologies could
appear less than fully rational.
The so-called ELIZA
effect describes our tendency to ascribe to computers
human traits and intentions which we may know they lack.
Many consumer chatbots, such as in banking or telecom-
munications, are designed to enable human users to efﬁ-
ciently ﬁnd information or services. In doing this, they
may tailor user responses to a history of use to increase
search accuracy. Still, the style of interaction here can be
relatively simple. In comparison, some chatbots have
more ambitious features. For example, Microsoft’s
Xiaoice, which has over 660 million users, is a social
agent ‘with a personality modelled on that of a teenage
girl, and [has] a dauntingly precocious skill set’.
Chatbots simulate human conversation by collecting
data and ﬁnding and projecting patterns. Simple chatbots
are often rule-based
and follow pre-programmed decision
trees or simple ‘If-Then-Else’rules. Conversational agents
with greater ﬂexibility may rely on AI and ML techniques.
Some of these employ deep learning neural networks,
and some require the collection and storage of large
amounts of user data to operate.
Such chatbots may sometimes loosely be said to ‘under-
stand’or at least to predict and respond to user needs. That
chatbots can generate affective responses from users is
sometimes regarded as desirable. Microsoft, for example,
suggest that ‘[s]ocial chatbots’appeal lies not only in
their ability to respond to users’diverse requests, but also
in being able to establish an emotional connection with
users’and so ‘better understand them and therefore help
them over a long period of time’.
In the 1950s, Alan Turing proposed a procedure for deter-
mining whether a computer could exhibit human intelligence.
Roughly speaking, the Turing Test involves testing whether a
device hidden to a person can convince that person that they
are interacting with another human being rather than a
When chatbots are sufﬁciently adept, it can
seem to the user that they are actually dealing with another
human. To avoid this problematic confusion, many current
public-facing chatbots reveal attheoutsetthattheyarenot
people. Nonetheless, some other chatbots may not make it par-
ticularly clear to users that they are just digital machines.
Chatbots for mental health: some beneﬁts and
As chatbots proliferated, they moved into the ﬁeld of mental
health. In this ﬁeld, some chatbots (like many consumer
chatbots) are largely a conduit to a human professional.
However, many chatbots, like the popular Woebot,
provide mental health assistance to users, such as advice
and exercises based on cognitive behavioural therapy.
These chatbots can often be accessed by anyone who can
download an app to a smartphone. Mental health chatbots
may also be used by health professionals as an online
element of therapies or patient monitoring.
bots, like Replika,
are capable of emulating emotion and
Chatbots sometimes have simple interfaces that provide
conversational search engines for digital mental health therapy
Whilst chatbots cannot satisfactorily replicate psy-
chotherapeutic dialogue, they can now maintain conversation
beyond simple, single linguistic outputs. Some chatbots can
guide users through exercises on mental health apps, such as
in the examples of Wysa and Tess.
Other chatbots can initi-
ate welcoming chats with clients waiting to see a human ther-
apist via online mental health portals such as e-headspace.
Information useful for therapists can be gathered when chat-
bots ask clients questions, sometimes using NLP to summarise
Chatbots have begun to ﬂourish in the digital mental
health space partly because they apparently offer certain
beneﬁts and advantages. For example, chatbots can
perhaps make mental health services and support more
accessible for many individuals. They can also run day
and night and do not require salaries or sick leave, although
they require humans to monitor and update them. When
chatbots malfunction, they can be upgraded or switched
off. These features have led to interest in chatbots from
businesses and organisations and from those who want to
expand the supply of mental health assistance amid
growing need and insufﬁcient services, further exacerbated
by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research shows that in embarrassing or stigmatising cir-
cumstances, chatbots may sometimes be preferred to human
contact and conversation.
Like Weizenbaum’s assistant,
users may be more likely to disclose emotional and
factual information to a chatbot than to a human.
Furthermore, the fact that chatbots may potentially engen-
der emotional connections may be viewed as a potential
advantage for socially isolated individuals. We know that
in healthcare, a perceived relationship of trust and mutual
understanding can be vital for successful therapy.
Chatbots that facilitate emotional connections and that
and understanding may therefore beneﬁta
range of user groups.
However, some research indicates barriers to using chat-
bots for mental health. Barriers include privacy concerns,
ﬁnancial constraints, scepticism and reduced willingness
among potential users from lower socioeconomic back-
Some studies have found that the main barriers
to chatbot use among adolescents are stigma, embarrass-
ment, poor mental health literacy and preferences for self-
A large-scale survey warned that the current
mental health app landscape tends to over-medicalise dis-
tress and over-emphasise ‘individual responsibility for
For chatbot design and use to be successful, users must
be able to trust that the technology will meet their needs
safely and effectively and that developers are responsive
to problems and user feedback.
This point is underscored
in the examples of various failed chatbots featured in
Table 1. The table illustrates ethical issues caused by chat-
bots designed to provide, respectively, legal assistance,
news, weather and general conversation. As the table
shows, these chatbots were the cause of various ethical pro-
blems, such as being offensive and causing emotional harm
(Lawbot and Tay), misunderstanding user questions
(Poncho) and failing to deliver the service and beneﬁts
that were promised (newsbots). Mental health chatbots
raise similar and also further ethical issues in an especially
acute manner, in virtue of the vulnerability of the indivi-
duals they are designed to assist. In the next section, we
shall see how mental health chatbots present a range of
ethical challenges that require careful attention.
Table 1. Examples of failed chatbots and reasons behind failure.
Chatbot Reasons for Failure
Lawbot: created by Cambridge
University students to help
victims of sexual assault
navigate the legal system
•Overly strict checklist to
determine what a crime is
•Can discourage users from
•Directs users to local police
station but not to support
Newsbots: In 2016, several
news agencies sought to
create bots that
personalised content and
opened up new audiences
required for maintenance
•Did not sync with existing
formats, delivery or
distribution of news content
•Lacked sophistication to
•Minimal input from
Poncho: Weather chatbot using
Facebook Messenger with a
sassy cartoon cat as the
•Sending users unrelated
•Not understanding words it
should, e.g. ‘weekend’
Tay: Microsoft chatbot trained
via crowdsourced input on
•Shut down after 24 h for
producing racist, sexist,
•Public able to inﬂuence
outputs as minimal human
Coghlan et al. 3
Ethical framework: ﬁve principles
Although there is some ethical discussion relevant to mental
health chatbots in the literature,
ethical evaluation of such
chatbots is still relatively limited.
To make better sense of
the ethical issues and to help guide designers, purveyers and
practitioners, it makes sense to draw on existing ethical
approaches or frameworks. In our view, the ﬁve-principle
framework outlined by Floridi and Cowls
useful. In this section, we brieﬂy explain the ﬁve-principle
ethical framework. We apply the framework to mental
health chatbots in the subsequent section.
The ﬁve key principles in this framework are (a) non-
maleﬁcence, (b) beneﬁcence, (c) respect for autonomy,
(d) justice and (e) explicability.
The ﬁrst four principles
are drawn from medical ethics.
The last principle, explic-
ability, has been added because of the special nature of
digital technologies such as AI. Explicability is composed
of two sub-principles: transparency and accountability.
Transparency is important because the ways in which intel-
ligent digital technologies work are often unknown to users
(and sometimes even to experts). Accountability is import-
ant in part because it can be unclear who is ethically and
legally liable for adverse outcomes of intelligent technolo-
Each of the ﬁve principles gives a distinctive form
of ethical guidance, which we describe in Table 2. The prin-
ciples are non-absolute but guiding prima facie rules for
those who design, implement, research or oversee digital
To be clear, the ﬁeld of AI ethics has identiﬁed many
other ethical principles relevant to intelligent technologies
including chatbots, including safety, solidarity, trust,
responsibility and dignity.
However, the ﬁve-principle
approach has several advantages. First, some of these
other principles can be subsumed under the ﬁve-principle
framework. For example, safety is covered by the principle
of non-maleﬁcence, and responsibility is covered by the
principle of accountability.
Second, a longer list of overlapping principles can cause
confusion and reduce the effectiveness and practicality of a
more succinct principle set that is relatively easily remem-
bered and understood. Third, the ﬁve principles, with the
exception of explicability, have a long track record of use-
fulness. The principles of non-maleﬁcence, beneﬁcence,
respect for autonomy and justice comprise the classic
ethical framework introduced in the 1970s by the bioethi-
cists Tom Beauchamp and James Childress.
ciples are well accepted in healthcare, whereas other ethical
principles (e.g. solidarity and dignity) are less well-known
and sometimes more contentious.
It is important to note that while the principles can apply
to a range of parties, including those who design and market
the technologies, they can apply somewhat differently to
mental health practitioners who deploy the chatbots.
Mental health practitioners, of course, have especially
exacting responsibilities to patients, stemming from their
professional roles as health carers. There is thus a context-
ual element to precisely determine how the principles work
in practice. No prima facie ethical principle can fully
specify how it should be applied in all situations.
Nonetheless, as AI ethics scholars have argued, the ﬁve
principles are still helpfully action-guiding for a range of
parties, including technologists.
They are also helpful for those who research chatbots
for and with people who have mental illness. Here again,
context can affect the precise application of the principles.
For example, research ethics in healthcare recognises that
researchers may balance potential harm to participants
against potential beneﬁts to society (e.g. future patients)
in contrast, medical practitioners not involved in research
should ordinarily pioritise their current patients’interests
over social beneﬁts in their provision of health services
(although they are sometimes required to take social impli-
cations into account). This example illustrates how the prin-
ciples of non-maleﬁcence and beneﬁcence operate
somewhat differently in different contexts and require
judgement in their application. Again, this need for judge-
ment goes for the other principles in the framework.
Issues with mental health chatbots: applying the
Guided by these ethical principles, we now identify and
discuss four ethically important issues for chatbots in
mental health care: human involvement, evidence base, col-
lection and use of data and unexpected disclosure of crimes.
Although this list is not exhaustive, it contains key moral
considerations and allows us to demonstrate the need for
ethical thinking about chatbot use. It also serves to illustrate
Table 2. Five key ethics principles for mental health chatbots.
AI Ethics Principle Ethical Requirements
Non-maleﬁcence Avoid causing physical, social or mental
harm to users
Beneﬁcence Ensure that interventions do good or
provide real beneﬁt to users
Respect users’values and choices
Justice Treat users without unfair bias,
discrimination or inequity
Explicability Provide to users sufﬁcient transparency
about the nature and effects of the
technology and be accountable for its
design and deployment
how the ﬁve-principle framework can be used. In the subse-
quent section, we make some recommendations for addres-
sing the sorts of ethical issues we discuss below.
To operate successfully and continuously, chatbots require
human supervision. As chatbots learn and develop, they
may acquire glitches and fail in various ways (Table 1).
Thus, human supervision is required to ensure that chatbots
operate as desired. Yet, adequate supervision is not always
achieved, and this creates the potential for harm. At the
same time, chatbot moderation can put pressure on
service providers to increase multitasking and workloads
in collecting, inputting, organising and constantly updating
digital materials, which, paradoxically, may reduce time for
teamwork and face-to-face engagement. Further risks arise
if there is a power outage that prevents mental health chat-
bots from providing services.
The complete or relative absence of trained human
supervisors from the chatbot environment can undermine
the role of expert professionals. Mental health chatbots
that provide an automated service are still far from being
able to recreate the rich therapeutic alliance
that can exist
between patients and human professionals, notwithstanding
their efforts to mirror real-life interactions. Though remark-
able in its way, ELIZA was never able to substitute for a
human therapist and the broad range of skills they
possess. The same drawback also applies to more sophisti-
cated, contemporary mental health chatbots, such as those
that use AI and NLP and far exceed ELIZA in ‘intelligence’
and learning ability. Recent work, however, is starting to
examine if and how a version of the therapeutic alliance,
so central to traditional psychotherapy, can be partly emu-
lated or fostered by mental health apps and chatbots.
But although increasing personalisation is possible (e.g.
different tips/strategies for depression versus anxiety), the
support provided by many chatbots at this point in time is
still relatively generic and in some ways resembles self-help
books. Current chatbots cannot grasp the nuances of social,
psychological and biological factors that feed into mental
health difﬁculties. As the popular Woebot warns: ‘As
smart as I may seem, I’m not capable of really understand-
ing what you need’.
The explosion of digital technology in health and social
services is premised on the reasonable idea that some forms
of automation and digital communication could assist with
care. One common aim of new technology, such as artiﬁcial
intelligence, is to break down tasks into individual compo-
nents that can be repetitively undertaken. However,
genuine, comprehensive care is not fully reducible to
these tasks, since care also has a rich emotional and
Chatbots are not capable of genuine
empathy or of tailoring responses to reﬂect human emo-
tions, and this comparative lack of affective skill may
Although affective computing
is creating systems that can recognise and simulate human
these systems still cannot match the capaci-
ties of human therapists.
What does this mean in terms of our chosen ethical
framework? The above considerations illustrate ways in
which chatbots run some risk of failing to accord with ben-
eﬁcence and non-maleﬁcence. Because they cannot fully
replicate the range of skills and the affective dimensions
of a human therapist and because they cannot entirely
replace the practitioner–client therapeutic alliance, chatbots
may potentially cause harm to some people and thus not
align with the principle of non-maleﬁcence. For the same
reason, chatbots may also fail to provide the beneﬁts for
mental well-being which are intended, thereby not
meeting the requirement of beneﬁcence.
However, if mental health chatbots can offer some semb-
lance of an effective therapeutic alliance and/or augment the
human–client relationship without causing harm, then they
may respect the principles of beneﬁcence and non-
maleﬁcence after all. Whether or not this occurs will
depend on various factors, such as the nature and compe-
tence of the chatbot, the feelings and attitudes of the
clients who interact with it, the level of technical support
provided and the reliability of the technology and the
involvement and role of mental health practitioners.
Where mental health chatbots (or particular instances of
them) pose risks of some harm but also promise some
degree of beneﬁt, judgement must be used to balance the
principles of non-maleﬁcence and beneﬁcence. As we
noted earlier, each of the ﬁve principles is a prima facie
rather than absolute principle, and the principles must
often be carefully weighed against one another when they
point in different directions. For example, if the only
option was to offer a client a mental health chatbot due to
long waiting lists for practitioners and if that chatbot had
the potential to offer some temporary assistance despite car-
rying certain risks of harm, then it may be judged that ben-
eﬁcence overrides non-maleﬁcence, at least in that speciﬁc
context. In other cases where the facts are different, non-
maleﬁcence may trump beneﬁcence.
More general ‘mental health’apps that purport to assist with
anxiety, depression and other conditions have been used
with varying levels of success. Leigh and Flatt characterise
the wide range of mental health apps as suffering from a
‘frequent lack of an underlying evidence base, a lack of sci-
entiﬁc credibility and subsequent limited clinical effective-
There are clear risks with hyping technology,
especially for disadvantaged people and without a commen-
surate evidence base to justify the enthusiasm.
appear at both the individual and population levels, from
shaping individual users’preferences and expectations
Coghlan et al. 5
about service provision to altering how national research
funding is distributed. An insufﬁcient evidence base for
the deployment of chatbots creates risks that are even
more acute for users already suffering various mental
At present, the evidence base for various mental health
chatbots is just getting established. Consequently, there
can be uncertainty over whether existing chatbots meet
the requirements of beneﬁcence. Furthermore, rolling out
chatbots may deﬂect people from essential mental health
services and encourage governments and other providers
to substitute human for automated care. When such chat-
bots lack a strong evidence base, this may lead to avoidable
harm to people with mental health concerns and thus fail to
meet the principle of non-maleﬁcence.
We should stress that it is not possible to say precisely
when beneﬁcence and non-maleﬁcence will support or
oppose the use of a mental health chatbot, for that will
depend on the context and circumstances. It will depend, for
example, on the relative degree of harm and beneﬁt involved
and our knowledge of their probabilities. Uncertainties, after
all, are commonplace in healthcare and in regard to emerging
technologies. What the principles tell us to do, however, is to
make the best judgement we can of the degrees and probabil-
ities of harms and beneﬁts from interventions and to exercise
judgement in how we weigh them up to reach conclusions. For
instance, if it is likely that a chatbot carries risks of consider-
able rather than minor harm, the principles will suggest that it
is necessary, before chatbot implementation, to have a ﬁrmer
evidence base that the technology can bring beneﬁts substan-
tial enough to outweigh the risks.
In addition to beneﬁcence and non-maleﬁcence, the
above considerations also bring into play the principle of
justice. An insufﬁcient evidence base, especially for higher
stakes interventions, ampliﬁes risks for users with mental
health problems. People with mental illness are already
often worse off than others: not only do such people suffer
from the effects of the illness, they may also have more
trouble keeping and ﬁnding employment, ﬁnd themselves
subject to social stigmas and isolation and so on. There is
thus a risk of violating the principle of justice by exacerbating
their problems with promising but poorly tested technologies.
Such an ampliﬁcation of inequity in society is prima facie
unfairaswellasmaleﬁcent. Furthermore, justice may be vio-
lated if chatbots which lack evidential support are used to
replace investment in and access to mental healthcare provided
by human professionals.
Data Collection, Storage and Use
Some (though not all) chatbots collect large amounts of data
about people, including data useful for commercial pur-
poses or government intervention (which may sometimes
be authorised, e.g. for people at risk of harming themselves
or others). Chatbots are frequently trained on existing data,
such as data arising from client interaction with service pro-
viders. The speciﬁc data used shapes those chatbots’
responses. When data sets are not sufﬁciently comprehen-
sive or representative of the target group, unintended
biases may occur. Some AI applications have been severely
criticised for producing biases that harm or discriminate
against certain groups and individuals.
High proﬁle exam-
ples include facial (mis)recognition and recidivism predic-
tion based on ML models.
mental health chatbots might thus reveal biases against
people with certain features, such as when they fail to
provide correct information to those particular individuals
even though they are reliable overall. Clearly, this
outcome may transgress the principle of justice.
Further questions concern what data is collected, how data
is stored (e.g. on a company-based server like Amazon’s
versus more localised storage), where data is used and how
it is linked to other data.
Raw chat data, metadata and
even client use behaviour can be tracked and linked with
other online behavioural data. Anonymised data can be
de-anonymised by data triangulation to reveal people’siden-
tities. Data security issues canarisefromtheriskofdata
related to mental health being leaked or hacked into by cyber-
criminals. Any resulting privacy loss can result in mental harm
and reduced control over personal information.
Preventing or not providing control over personal informa-
tion can breach the principle of respect for autonomy. Respect
for autonomy involves respect for a person’s values (e.g. their
interests in privacy) and their ability to make decisions based
on those values. Obtaining personal and sensitive information
from clients with mental health issues will always be an ethic-
ally laden business. Respect for autonomy generally requires
gaining fully informed consent from individuals before such
information is taken and used.
Where a chatbot user is not given sufﬁcient information
about what data is collected, how it is used and the risks that
such use may generate, the principle of explicability and its
sub-principle of transparency also come into play.
Transparency is ethically important because people in
general want to know how their data is being managed
and what its implications are, including the potential for
harm. However, many people are not aware of the ways
in which new technologies can harvest and recombine
data to make predictions about their identity and behaviour.
As noted, such predictions can sometimes be biased against
individuals from certain populations.
gies may thus require special explanations of the risks
and beneﬁts of data collection and use, including being
given clear information about the likelihood that their
data, anonymised or not, could be passed or sold to third
parties. These are important reasons why the principle of
explicability/transparency—a principle developed as a
result of the complex, unfamiliar and autonomous nature
of intelligent machines—is a useful addition to the ethical
framework for mental health chatbots.
Unexpected Disclosure of Crimes
The issue of unexpected personal disclosures
overlooked for chatbots, yet it too raises important questions.
Consider a user apparently disclosing crimes like child abuse
or domestic violence.
As we observed earlier, users can form
quasi-relationships with machines,
and this could promote
the revelation of information that, if disclosed to a human,
might entail ethical or legal duties to report.
It may sometimes be unclear whether such a duty applies
to unsupervised chatbots. In some jurisdictions, mental
health practitioners (and other professionals) may be
legally required to report suspected abuse. But it may be
less clear whether a company that provides the technology
or obtains and keeps the data has such a legal duty.
Principles of justice and beneﬁcence suggest at least an
ethical duty of this kind where the disclosure is credible.
However, the issue is fraught since it may be unclear
whether reporting might exacerbate harms to people with
mental health issues and it can be hard to determine what
degree of certainty is required to justify it. Here, the prin-
ciple of justice may conﬂict with the principle of non-
maleﬁence. On the one hand, failures to report may lead
to serious harm to innocent victims; on the other hand, mis-
taken reports may effectively cause injustice. Mistaken
reports may also undermine trust in chatbot use, which
could reduce their overall beneﬁts.
The question of reporting apparent disclosure of crime
is, then, yet another occasion on which the ethical principles
need to be carefully considered, weighed and balanced to
determine the right or best course of action. Even so, the
principles give us direction on how to proceed in making
such decisions. Clariﬁcation about what the law requires
or might require could also help here, and future research
could beneﬁcially explore the legal ramiﬁcations of crim-
inal disclosure across various jurisdictions.
We are now in a position to offer some recommendations
for the design and use of chatbots for mental health.
Whether and how a chatbot should be developed and imple-
mented requires an overall ethical evaluation that can be
made on the basis of conformity with our prima facie
ethical principles, suitably interpreted and weighed. In add-
ition to complying with existing law, those responsible for
chatbot design and deployment, we suggest, should meet
duties of non-maleﬁcence, beneﬁcence, autonomy, justice
and explicability (transparency and accountability).
The sub-principle of accountability, which we have not
yet discussed, refers to the roles and duties of responsible
parties to act ethically in their handling of technology. In
effect, this means being responsive to the other ethical princi-
ples in the framework and establishing appropriate mechan-
isms and procedures for upholding them. Accountability is
thus a means of ensuring that the design and use of chatbots
brings beneﬁt, avoids or minimises harm, respects autonomy,
remains transparent and is just or fair. To meet the ethical prin-
ciples, relevant parties (e.g. mental health practitioners and
chatbot purveyers) should take the following steps.
Recommendation 1: weigh risk and beneﬁt
In this step, relevant parties should clearly deﬁne the
problem they wish to solve and the purpose they want to
aim at to ensure the speciﬁc chatbot may justiﬁably be
developed in the ﬁrst place.
Sometimes, the risks will
be too high or the beneﬁts too low to justify (partially)
replacing human therapists with chatbots which cannot
empathise or provide comprehensive mental healthcare
and which might deﬂect some people from seeking
human care that would be better for them.
If the use of a chatbot is presumptively justiﬁed, the above
ethical principles should be used to determine how best to
develop and implement them throughout the technology pipe-
line. When existing systems are repurposed or retired, an
evaluative process of weighing risk and beneﬁt should be
repeated. It might also be worth considering patient and
public involvement in mental health chatbot development
to anticipate and respond to risks, and to
maximise the beneﬁts, of chatbots for end-users.
Recommendation 2: seek and disclose evidential
As we saw, having a sufﬁcient evidence base
services for disadvantaged people is required by principles of
non-maleﬁcence, beneﬁcence and justice. Although their
speed and scalability may be tempting, the use of chatbots
requires an evidence-based approach. Where the stakes are
particularly high (e.g. highly at-risk people with psychological
problems), this may require more substantial evidential
support, such as well-conducted clinical trials. In less risky
situations (e.g. when people are mildly unwell), less evidential
support may be acceptable. The degree of evidential support
should also be transparently disclosed to respect user auton-
omy to engage or decline chatbot assistance. While a lack of
robust evidence does not imply that chatbots lack value, it
does require caution in recommending chatbots and warrants
further research into their beneﬁts and risks.
Recommendation 3: approach data collection/use
Because collection, storage and use of personal data create
risks, the relevant facts must be made transparent to users in
order to promote their trust and respect their autonomy.
Special attention must be paid to ensuring transparency and
adequate understanding for users with mental health issues
Coghlan et al. 7
(or other vulnerabilities) that could impair their understanding.
Chatbot developers and owners should ensure that training
data is sufﬁciently representative to mitigate injustice against
individuals and groups. Data use also raises legal and ethical
questions about privacy. Systems must ensure the security
of data to avoid maleﬁcence and disrespect for autonomy.
Here, experts in consumer protection, privacy protection and
security of data storage may offer important advice.
Data protection laws in many jurisdictions place strict limits
on what data (particularly sensitive personal data) can be col-
lected and how it is stored and re-used.
tions are increasingly demanded by law, such as the EU’s
General Consumer Data Regulation (GDPR). These demands
may increase as societies recognise the implications of big
data and the power it lends organisations.
After chatbot retire-
ment, owners should determine how data will be safely stored or
destroyed and users should be adequately notiﬁed.
Recommendation 4: consider possible disclosure of
A failure to report to authorities may create legal risks, and
reporting crimes when others may be at imminent risk is
also a prima facie ethical duty of beneﬁcence and justice.
Nonetheless, reporting too carries dangers. Theoretically,
reporting could be done automatically or else with a
human in the loop. One option is to develop a system that
scans all user input for problematic content (e.g. using
keyword analysis or more sophisticated NLP detection
techniques for determining concerning terms/phrases). If a
portion of content were to signal an emergency situation
or deemed to be beyond the chatbot’s purview, then it
would be automatically passed on to a human content mod-
erator with sufﬁcient experience who could then make the
decision to report or not based on an ethical assessment
of the situation. Either way, those utilising chatbots need
to be aware of possible legal implications and liabilities.
Accountability might require other steps to be taken.
According to Duggal and colleagues, a robust regulatory frame-
work in digital mental health contexts will only emerge when
service users, patients, practitioners and providers collaborate
to design a ‘forward thinking, future proof, and credible regula-
tory framework that can be trusted by all parties’.
accountability, there is a higher risk of costly technologies being
introduced without thoughtful regard for ethical principles like
beneﬁcence, non-maleﬁcence, transparency and respect for
autonomy. Poor user consultation also increases the likelihood
of wasted resources, which is not only a pragmatic consideration
for developers but sometimes also a matter of justice.
Deliberative, participatory development may also be
important since services and technology tend to emerge
from a concentration of power, such as through government
agencies, venture capital and Big Tech, universities with
large-scale infrastructure for tech development and sizable pro-
fessional associations. To ensure greater justice and beneﬁtin
design, development and regulation, some writers have called
for ‘interdisciplinary empirical research on the implications of
these technologies that centres the experiences and knowledge
of those who will be most affected’.
Such research should
preferably accommodate diversity amongst end-users in terms
of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status and so forth, as
such factors can shape how users experience technologies.
Undertaking genuinely participatory, community-engaged
and inclusive development is not straightforward. Design of
technology like chatbots that have the potential to both
beneﬁt and harm vulnerable groups should be done via
careful consultation with the relevant experts and target
users and always with the key ethical principles in mind.
This paper identiﬁed and discussed ethical questions raised by
emerging mental health chatbots. Chatbots can probably
provide beneﬁts for people with mental health concerns, but
they also create risks and challenges. The ethical issues we iden-
tiﬁed involved the replacement of expert humans, having an
adequate evidence base, data use and security, and the apparent
disclosure of crimes. We discussed how these ethical challenges
can be understood and addressed through the ﬁve principles of
beneﬁcence, non-maleﬁcence, respect for autonomy, justice and
explicability (transparency and accountability), noting that the
application of such principles, including where they come
into apparent conﬂict with each other, requires contextual judg-
ment. Based on our discussion, we offered several ethical
recommendations for those parties who design and deploy chat-
bots. While we focused on chatbots for mental health, the
ethical considerations we discussed also have broad application
to chatbots in other situations and contexts, especially where the
end-users are particularly vulnerable.
Acknowledgements:We thank two anonymous reviewers for
very helpful feedback and advice.
Contributorship: SC, SD and KL conceptualised and wrote drafts
of the paper. SS provided a literature review and edited drafts. PG
and MC reviewed drafts and made important additions and edits.
All authors reviewed and approved the version submitted.
Declaration of conﬂicting interests: The authors declared no
potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding: The authors received no ﬁnancial support for the
research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
ORCID iD: Simon D’Alfonso https://orcid.org/0000-0001-
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