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In both the U.S. and throughout the world, mental health disorders are common. In this country alone, roughly one in every 5 people have some kind of mental health problem. This includes 8% of the population suffering from depression and 20% who have anxiety conditions. Despite this prevalence, however, less than half receive care for their symptoms. In fact, only 55% of the counties in the U.S. have a psychiatrist available. As a result, serious problems related to the access and quality of mental health care exist. And it’s one reason why companies are employing mental health technologies in an effort to address these issues.

Increasingly, artificial intelligence, or AI for short, is being used in mental healthcare situations. AI therapy can now be employed via a variety of platforms to help individuals learn and better manage their mental health problems. But despite its promise, AI therapy has yet to be proven as an effective tool in the management of psychological illness. There are also many concerns that exist beyond these issues. To better understand the future role of these mental health technologies, it’s important to examine these concerns more closely. And in the process, hopefully avoid some pitfalls and missteps along the way.

“In the near term, I am most excited about using AI to augment or guide therapists, such as giving feedback after the session or even providing tools to support self-reflection.” – Zac Imel, Co-founder of LYSSN.io, a company using AI to evaluate psychotherapy

A Beneficial Use of AI Mental Health Technologies

One area where there is general agreement concerning AI therapy involves therapist assistance. The use of these mental health technologies could greatly improve professionals’ abilities and skills in several areas. A vast amount of data can be collected and analyzed by AI and data analytics systems. For example, data from social media posts, smartphones, electronic health records, and therapy transcripts offer rich informational resources. These types of analysis could be used to better guide actual therapist in making better decisions about diagnosis and treatment. Thus, many experts accept a valuable next step is some type of AI-human collaboration.

While this is likely to be improve mental healthcare, the potential for AI therapy to replace human therapy isn’t. It’s true that AI systems can collect, analyze, store and retrieved tremendous amounts of information. These abilities far exceed the potential of the human brain in most cases. For example, AI algorithms are being used to identify suicide risks. (Read more about artificial intelligence algorithms used as a tool to prevent suicides in this Bold story.) But AI therapy cannot function well in a conversational, give-and-take situation. Because of this, the human relational component essential to effect mental healthcare will suffer. Therefore, few believe these mental health technologies will ever displace an actual human therapist.

“On a research front, AI can help us unlock some of the complexities of the brain and work toward understanding these illnesses better, which can help us offer new, effective treatment…We can utilize AI to find patterns that may help us unlock why people develop mental illness, who responds best to certain treatments and who may need help immediately.” – John Torous, Director of the Digital-Psychiatry Division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

AI Mental Health Technologies in Research

One of the issues related to AI and other mental health technologies is their speed of development. New apps are being developed quickly that are attempting to create marketable AI therapy platforms. But none have been shown to be effective, mainly because of the research barriers involved. In traditional research, controlled trials are performed over extended periods of time. But with the volume of these apps being developed and employed so quickly, this has not been possible. This has not stopped several from suggesting their beneficial use in AI therapy. In most cases, testing has not been robust, and claims have been based on feasibility studies rather than comprehensive research.

A therapy app that presumably uses AI
Are you ready to embrace AI therapy as an alternative to talking to an actual human?

This doesn’t mean that these mental health technologies cannot advance mental health research. One of the biggest advantages of AI is its capacity to consume massive amounts of data and recognize patterns. These patterns can offer keen insights that aid diagnosis, management, and more. In this way, they could serve as an AI therapy resource by improving knowledge about these conditions. Here again, however, these would be used in a more collaborative role with mental health professionals rather than stand-alone AI therapy platforms. They would not overtly replace human therapists.

“If chatbots prove safe and effective, we could see a world where patients access treatment and decide if and when they want another person involved.” – Adam Miner, Instructor, Stanford School of Medicine

The Practical Use of AI Therapy Platforms

Notably, there are several areas in mental healthcare where these mental health technologies aren’t feasible. For example, the art of diagnosing mental health conditions is not straightforward enough to consider their use. Too many nuances exist in the process that rely on conversational exchange and interpretation. An AI therapy platform might provide insights and assistance in this process. But it wouldn’t be able to function independently in these situations. The risks with misdiagnosis and/or detrimental advice would be too great. Particularly for vulnerable populations at risk, this could have notable repercussions.

Despite this, AI therapy platforms could alleviate some of the current issues in mental healthcare today. For one, these mental health technologies could serve a screening role or an educational service. Mental wellness apps have been employed during the pandemic. (Read more about the mental wellness apps used to combat the psychological issues COVID has brought in this Bold story.) Chatbots driven by AI might help individuals by providing general safe advice. They might also introduce them to the benefits of mental healthcare. In this role, technology could improve access to treatment while encouraging greater support for psychological care. This is why many experts believe AI therapy apps won’t replace human therapists but actually increase their demand.

Reigning in Advances for Optimal Care

There are a number of AI therapy apps today already on the market. Some provide chatbots to combat loneliness. Others serve as platforms where symptoms are screened and options of care provided. But these mental health technologies may or may not be highly effective. Even more, there is some concern about protecting privacy rights of individuals who use these platforms. Release of such data to commercial entities could undermine the trust necessary for effective mental healthcare. Because of this, more investigation is needed. But it’s clear these apps and platforms are here to stay. It will be up to us to determine how best to use them to improve mental wellness in the future.

 

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