Natural language processing for cognitive therapy: Extracting schemas from thought records

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The cognitive approach to psychotherapy aims to change patients’ maladaptive schemas, that is, overly negative views on themselves, the world, or the future. To obtain awareness of these views, they record their thought processes in situations that caused pathogenic emotional responses. The schemas underlying such thought records have, thus far, been largely manually identified. Using recent advances in natural language processing, we take this one step further by automatically extracting schemas from thought records. To this end, we asked 320 healthy participants on Amazon Mechanical Turk to each complete five thought records consisting of several utterances reflecting cognitive processes. Agreement between two raters on manually scoring the utterances with respect to how much they reflect each schema was substantial (Cohen’s κ = 0.79). Natural language processing software pretrained on all English Wikipedia articles from 2014 (GLoVE embeddings) was used to represent words and utterances, which were then mapped to schemas using k-nearest neighbors algorithms, support vector machines, and recurrent neural networks. For the more frequently occurring schemas, all algorithms were able to leverage linguistic patterns. For example, the scores assigned to the Competence schema by the algorithms correlated with the manually assigned scores with Spearman correlations ranging between 0.64 and 0.76. For six of the nine schemas, a set of recurrent neural networks trained separately for each of the schemas outperformed the other algorithms. We present our results here as a benchmark solution, since we conducted this research to explore the possibility of automatically processing qualitative mental health data and did not aim to achieve optimal performance with any of the explored models. The dataset of 1600 thought records comprising 5747 utterances is published together with this article for researchers and machine learning enthusiasts to improve upon our outcomes. Based on our promising results, we see further opportunities for using free-text input and subsequent natural language processing in other common therapeutic tools, such as ecological momentary assessments, automated case conceptualizations, and, more generally, as an alternative to mental health scales.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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