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One in four people suffer from mental illness globally – can AI help?

Vihan Sanyal
12th Sep 2018
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science which is instrumental in creating intelligent machines that are modelled on human intelligence. The idea behind creating such technology is to become more efficient, increase productivity, and enhance the quality of life. In short, AI is a computer programme which is useful in replicating aspects of human intelligence and behaviour.

Many people think that AI is associated with robots and automation. The truth is that AI and robotics are different. Manufacturers of robots can incorporate AI technology to control the robot. The robot can be programmed using AI technology to think and behave just like humans. It can even replicate human emotions and facial expressions of basic emotions like sadness, anger, excitement, and love. However, it is important to note that AI is also widely used in computer systems, mobile phones, and other gadgets which have nothing to do with robots.

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Artificial Intelligence in mental health

AI is being researched and tested in controlled experiments to measure its effectiveness in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. One of the main challenges of current psychiatric evaluation and clinical diagnosis is that many of the disorders have overlapping symptoms. For example, experiencing fear, restlessness, nervousness, mood fluctuations, sleep disturbances, and inability to concentrate are a few common symptoms which are part of a variety of mental disorders like anxiety, clinical depression, bipolar, and borderline personality disorder, to name a few.

The overlapping conditions result in multiple diagnoses of a person’s condition and often prevent consistency within practitioners. People are diagnosed differently by different practitioners. This at times leads to a state of confusion, change in the methodology of treatment, mistrust, and slow recovery of the condition.

The strong stigma linked to mental health in our country results in people suffering in silence. Determined not to acknowledge and accept the illness is another common trend found in our society. Many people shy away from seeking help for themselves as they find it difficult to narrate their life story to another human being. The fear of embarrassment and of being judged or labelled fills a person’s mind and they opt out of the option of seeking professional help. In India, the ratio of people suffering from mental disorders significantly outweighs the number of mental health professionals available to help them. This gap can be reduced with the help of AI.

How can Artificial Intelligence support therapists?

AI can help provide clinical support to mental health professionals in two main ways. It has the potential to diagnose mental disorders with accuracy and efficiency. It might also be capable of providing a basic level of counselling based on the CBT model. By applying AI, practitioners may be able to prevent and treat mental illness at early stages. With its help, we may be able to prevent suicides and save lives.

AI at present is still in its infancy. The technology has endless potential and can make unimaginable contributions to the field of mental health in the near future. Just like any new medication, we will not know the full impact AI can have on helping people until the technology has been tested on a large population of people belonging to different demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.

A few of the recent contributions of AI in therapy

A Facebook-integrated computer programme called “WOEBOT” has been developed by clinical research psychologist Dr Alison Darcy. Woebot is what is known as a chatbot and works on an instant messaging platform. Woebot can assess a person’s mood by asking them a few questions. It then uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tools to help the client with their concern. The responses are customized according to the person’s condition.

There is also a virtual therapist by the name of “Ellie” which has also been launched by an American university. In her early days, Ellie was designed to treat veterans experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The wonderful aspect of Ellie is that she can decode a person’s words and also their nonverbal cues like facial expressions and gestures. Multisensory information is a crucial element of any therapy session – with the help of an AI tool like Ellie, the therapist can provide better diagnosis and treatment to their clients.

An AI-based chatbot called Wysa uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques (CBT) to help treat mental disorders. She was designed to increase awareness, track emotional wellness, and perform as a motivational tool. Wysa’s core competency is its ability to understand the shift in moods and feelings associated with them. The programme then guides the user through appropriate exercises to treat the condition. It can also collate data from the exercises and generate a weekly performance report. The report can serve as a visual representation of the progress made by the user.

For severe cases like suicidal ideation, Wysa can encourage the user to seek the help of human intervention by a trained mental health practitioner.

Then there is the Moderate Online Social Therapy (MOST) model, which has been developed by a team in Australia. MOST is primarily being used in helping young people with depression. The programme creates a safe therapeutic environment where participants are encouraged to participate in a series of therapeutic exercises.

A platform which has been around for a while is called Ginger.io. Ginger.io is aimed at providing people timely support 24/7 online and uses CBT and mindfulness techniques and focuses on building resilience in people. Users are required to download the Ginger.io app. The user will then get access to a team of support coaches who are available to them 24/7. The system also recognizes the need for case escalation to a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist as per the requirement, ensuring limitations in treatment and timely intervention is provided through referrals.

Advantages of using AI

High accuracy: Chances of human error can be largely reduced with the help of this technology. Diagnozing mental illness can become more reliable and standardized. Patients can benefit from accurate diagnosis and treatment for their conditions even if they change practitioners.

Digital models: Advanced programmes can use what are called “avatars” who are modeled to look and behave like human therapists. The idea is to save human resources and be able to reach out to more people. Also, the users will feel better that they are speaking with a human lookalike instead of a machine.

Replicate human emotions and empathy: AI has already started to prove helpful to people who are in need of basic counseling. This can be very useful for telephonic-based counseling. People interacting over the phone with these virtual therapists are not likely to feel that they are speaking with a machine. The machines are advanced enough to read the state of the callers emotions and respond accordingly.

Consistency: Treatment can be tailored according to individuals and a patient can expect consistency in treatment being provided. Human therapists can have a bad day and it can reflect in their session with the client; however, machines are robust and remain unaffected by human stressors. The complete absence of the emotional side makes the robots think logically and take the right programme decisions.

Work long hours: It becomes emotionally exhausting for most therapists to deal with other people’s emotions within a therapeutic framework. Machines do not have such constraints and can work tirelessly for longer periods of time without requiring any breaks.

Confidentiality and trust: With the use of technologies like AI and blockchain, the personal data of the clients/patients are going to be safe and secure. People will have full control over their data at all times and can choose who to give access to. People are likely to be completely candid with the programme once they realize that their information is not likely to get leaked and there won’t be any fear of facing embarrassment or loss of face by speaking with a machine.

Early detection: AI can be extremely helpful in being able to accurately detect the onset of mental illness early. This will ensure that timely therapeutic interventions are administered to the person, and even prevent further damage from taking place. AI has the potential of saving lives which may otherwise be lost to suicide.

Lowered fear of stigma: The fear of being labeled and stereotyped keep many from approaching a mental health professional. Social approval plays a big role in our society and most people will do anything to preserve their reputation. Sadly, many who require professional support don’t end up getting it because of the stigma attached to mental health. With AI-enabled programmes, people may be more forthcoming in seeking treatment for themselves and for their loved ones.

Increased accessibility: With the help of these AI programmes, people in remote locations and in rural areas can seek help. People will no longer need to travel distances to seek medical help. Many people will be able to benefit from the technology, and most importantly, we will be able to save more lives.

Disadvantages of using AI

High cost: At present, many AI-enabled machines are complex and expensive. They are also expensive to maintain and repair.

Lack of human touch: Machines can be human-like, but are not human beings. They work according to the way they are programmed. As human beings are complex by nature, the intuitive skills of a mental health professional will be required to deal with certain complexities arising in therapy. A machine powered by AI will not be able to think and operate outside of the programme.

Lack of validation: The arena of mental health is one which is personal and of a sensitive nature for many people. One of the challenges we may face is to measure the effectiveness of a programme, as many people may choose not to volunteer such “feedback”-related activities.

All human innovation we see today in the world is a product of human intelligence. AI can augment human intelligence to create an efficient and better world. Hospitals linked to cloud-based systems, mobile phone applications, and AI-enabled devices, including chatbots, can all help us improve our current ecosystem and bridge the ever increasing gap in the current ratio of mental health professionals to people in need of treatment.

Dr Vihan Sanyal is an eminent psychotherapist from Mumbai and the Founder of Mind Factory.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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