We’re experiencing a mental health crisis. Approximately 15.5% of the global population is affected by mental illnesses, and those numbers are rising. Although there are many who require treatment, more than 50% of mental illnesses remain untreated. In the United States, one in five adults suffers from some form of mental illness. Every 40 seconds one person dies from suicide and for every adult who dies from suicide, there are more than 20 others who have attempted to end their life. The ramifications of this go beyond our families and cultures as mental health also has a tremendous economic impact for the cost of treatment as well as the loss of productivity.
The critical shortfall of psychiatrists and other mental health specialists to provide treatment exacerbates this crisis. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans live where there is a shortage of mental health professionals; 60% of U.S. counties don’t have a psychiatrist. Those that do have access to mental health professionals often forgo treatment because they can’t afford it. Those with depression visit primary care physicians an average of five times a year versus three times for those who don’t have it. Others seek help in emergency rooms which are more expensive. More than $201 billion is spent on mental health annually making mental health the most expensive part of our healthcare system after knocking out heart conditions for the honor.
Examples of current uses of AI in mental health
Researchers are testing different ways that artificial intelligence can help screen, diagnose and treat mental illness.
Researchers from the World Well-Being Project (WWBP) analyzed social media with an AI algorithm to pick out linguistic cues that might predict depression. It turns out that those suffering from depression express themselves on social media in ways that those dealing with other chronic conditions do not such as mentions of loneliness and using words such as "feelings," "I" and "me." The team's findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but after analyzing half a million Facebook posts from people who consented to provide their Facebook status updates and medical records, they were able to identify depression-associated language markers. What the researchers found was that linguistic markers could predict depression up to three months before the person receives a formal diagnosis. Other researchers use technology to explore the way facial expressions, enunciation of words and tone and language could indicate suicide risk.
In addition to researchers, there are several companies using artificial intelligence to help tackle the mental health crisis. Quartet's platform flags possible mental conditions and can refer patients to a provider or a computerized cognitive behavioral therapy program. Ginger’s contribution is a chat application used by employers that provides direct counseling services to employees. Its algorithms analyze the words someone uses and then relies on its training from more than 2 billion behavioral data samples, 45 million chat messages and 2 million clinical assessments to provide a recommendation. The CompanionMX system has an app that allows patients being treated with depression, bipolar disorders, and other conditions to create an audio log where they can talk about how they are feeling. The AI system analyzes the recording as well as looks for changes in behavior for proactive mental health monitoring. Bark, a parental control phone tracker app, monitors major messaging and social media platforms to look for signs of cyberbullying, depression, suicidal thoughts and sexting on a child’s phone.
These are just a few of the innovative solutions that support mental health.
4 Benefits of using AI to help solve the mental health crisis
There are several reasons why AI could be a powerful tool to help us solve the mental health crisis. Here are four benefits:
1. Support mental health professionals
As it does for many industries, AI can help support mental health professionals in doing their jobs. Algorithms can analyze data much faster than humans, can suggest possible treatments, monitor a patient’s progress and alert the human professional to any concerns. In many cases, AI and a human clinician would work together.
2. 24/7 access
Due to the lack of human mental health professionals, it can take months to get an appointment. If patients live in an area without enough mental health professionals, their wait will be even longer. AI provides a tool that an individual can access all the time, 24/7 without waiting for an appointment.
3. Not expensive
The cost of care prohibits some individuals from seeking help. Artificial intelligent tools could offer a more accessible solution.
4. Comfort talking to a bot
While it might take some people time to feel comfortable talking to a bot, the anonymity of an AI algorithm can be positive. What might be difficult to share with a therapist in person is easier for some to disclose to a bot.
Obstacles to overcome
While there is great promise for using AI to help the current mental health crisis, there are still obstacles to overcome. There are significant privacy concerns as well as making people comfortable and willing to accept various levels of being monitored in their day-to-day lives. In addition, there is no regulation for these applications, so it is advised that any app be used in conjunction with a mental health professional. As AI tools are created, it is essential that they are protocols in place to make them safe and effective and built and trained with a diverse data set, so they aren't biased toward a particular population.
Overall, AI has the promise to provide critical resources we need to overcome our mental health crisis.