The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed a major shift towards telehealth, where people can access healthcare through telecommunication methods, like video calls. As families stayed home to prevent catching a disease that was largely unknown at the time, many had no choice but to turn to electronic health-related services, among them mental health therapy. Simultaneously, increased isolation-induced anxiety and depression aroused additional demand for therapy, swirling up the debate of how modern technology could reinforce mental health therapy.

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As mental health therapy became available online, the world turned its attention to the role artificial intelligence (AI) could play in improving the field. Here are some ways it could do so:

1. Training mental health professionals

AI can be used to train mental health professionals, thus reducing the risk of inexperienced counselors providing incorrect treatment to at-risk clients. For instance, the AI-powered Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for young LGBTQ members, partnered with Google to launch a crisis contact simulator and counselor training tool. The simulator models digital conversations with LGBTQ youth in crisis, allowing counselors in training to first undergo practice conversations before taking on real-life ones, where the risk of endangering a client is far greater. It also allows for more flexibility in training counselors or volunteers remotely, opening up more opportunities for aspiring counselors to work in a highly required field.

2. Interpreting data

Using AI in mental health care can allow the technology to obtain valuable insight from colossal amounts of data, which humans may not necessarily be able to do. While there have been many innovations in mental health care, the Director of Digital Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, John Torous, explained, “Intuitively, we know that these tools contain important information… but it’s been very hard to unlock that data for clinical insights”. Compared to human workers, AI can comb through heaps of data with greater accuracy and efficiency.

3. Chatbots 

Chatbots and virtual assistants are an additional way for AI to fortify mental health care and provide support to marginalized groups. While not nearly as effective as in-person therapies, chatbots can interact with individuals 24/7 in real-time and at no cost, expanding access to mental health support. They also allow clients space to sustain sensitive conversations that may bring them discomfort in the presence of another human. Researchers and developers continue to innovate virtual assistants as both standalone treatments and as a supplement to traditional counseling.

4. Mental illness detection

AI may also be able to detect mental illnesses, like anxiety, through behaviors that may otherwise slip through the cracks. Researchers involved in a small study in Karachi identified specific behaviors that detect anxiety, including nail-biting, knuckle-cracking and hand-tapping, which can be recognized with motion sensors and deep learning techniques. The study as a whole delivered 92% effectiveness, and even though not very all-encompassing, it gives us considerable insight into how AI can be further developed in the future.

5. Supporting mental health professionals

Right now, clients usually undergo therapy alone in a room with a single therapist. After training, most therapists are not further supervised, and thus it could be difficult for them to make the “right” call. In this case, AI can listen into those sessions and give professionals feedback on the client’s performance, like how much a person talked or what intervention strategies were used, without breaking therapist-patient confidentiality. Of course, therapists who want to use AI as a tool in this department would require consent from their clients, which may pose a challenge.

The future of AI and mental health care

While AI may help streamline the process of training mental health professionals, identifying patterns in data and recognizing mental health issues in otherwise undiagnosed patients, it will never truly replace traditional therapy. As data and AI Product Manager at the Trevor Project Kendra Gaunt said, “There will always be a need for human-to-human connection.”

While a machine can draw on the knowledge gained from data and learning, it lacks the human emotions and feedback most people appreciate during treatment. Gaunt continues, “AI’s role in this space shouldn’t be to replace humans, it should be to support them.” Still, the future for AI in mental health care is uncertain. With many exciting prospects on the horizon, it is important to remember that, ultimately, AI is a tool to streamline the ease with which humans can conduct their work.

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