AI Counsellors: The Future of Mental Health?
Depression is a global epidemic. With more than 300 million sufferers worldwide, it is the world’s leading cause of disability. But its impact goes beyond the individual – depression and anxiety disorders are estimated to cost the global economy $US 1 trillion every year.
Unfortunately, the nature of depression is that sufferers may not end up getting the diagnosis and help they need. Despite great efforts and widely publicized public health campaigns, the stigma surrounding mental health remains. People with depression can be embarrassed or scared to appear weak, making them reluctant to seek out professional or social support. Combine this with mental health services being tricky to access in many parts of the world, and we have a global epidemic on our hands.
The scale of the problem and difficulties in identifying and providing access to effective treatment of depression has inspired innovations in the areas of diagnosis, virtual counselling, patient monitoring, and personalized therapy.
E-health startups are entering the field, with one prominent example being Mindstrong. Developed by doctors and machine learning experts, Mindstrong aims to harness the wealth of information available on our smartphones – supplementing biometric data such as pulse and physical activity with usage data. Designed as a tool for doctors, the AI is able to identify the behavior patterns of users in different mental states, flagging warning signs for professional attention.
AI-based cognitive therapy and counselling has spawned several interesting startups, such as X2 AI’s mental health chatbot, Tess, or competitors Woebot and Wyso. Natural language is analyzed as it is used and the AI applies what it has learned from either static or live data to create an interactive therapy experience. Trained in CBT and coping strategies, the AI can monitor the user’s state of mind and suggest appropriate strategies. A clinical study even demonstrated that Woebot users experienced “significant reductions in anxiety and depression” compared with a control group working from an e-book.
Some of these startups, such as, Wyso, also facilitate access to human counsellors. Competitor Ginger.io provides access to a team of mental health professionals that includes support coaches, licensed therapists and certified psychiatrists. The idea appears to be to harness the best of both, with machines concentrating on data while deferring to human practitioners for more in-depth support.
AI and related innovations will continue to add to our understanding of mental health problems in the years to come – perhaps even helping us to identify depression in its early stages. But these should be seen more as sources of additional support rather than a replacement for human-to-human interaction and therapy.