20 Jul 2021

Therapy from Your Phone: AI in Mental Health

Girl using phone to receive therapy

Lockdown has had a devastating impact on mental health. Mind has found that over half of adults and over two-thirds of young people claim that their mental health has worsened during lockdown restrictions. Along with the negative effects of being isolated and staying inside, access to therapy has never been so limited…or has it? Despite the lack of in-person mental health resources available during the Covid-19 pandemic, access to help is now easier than ever, virtually.

Nearly twenty thousand mental health apps are available on iOS and Android app stores, and many of these utilise AI technology to provide the best user experience. From chatbots to mood trackers, AI can get to know you and provide personal support without you ever having to leave your house. AI mental health apps couldn’t have come at a better time. In the UK, downloads of mental health apps have increased by nearly 200% from summer 2019 to 2020.

How It Works

The AI is programmed to respond effectively to user inputs, having access to a mine of mental health data, including diagnosis information and therapeutic techniques, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It essentially knows the same information and techniques as your human therapist. AI apps are also able to learn about you. This additional data helps the AI to develop increasingly personalised responses the more you use the app.

Woebot, a chatbot that you can engage with through Facebook Messenger, collects data through natural language processing, analysing not only the content of your messages but also your style of conversation, to get to know you and the details of your condition better. AI’s detection skills can be seen as potentially more accurate than a human therapist. An IBM study found that AI algorithms using language analysis were 100% accurate in identifying teens who were likely to develop psychosis.

University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies takes AI further with its virtual therapist Ellie, who was initially designed to treat veterans suffering from depression and PTSD. Ellie conducts therapy sessions via video call and detects up to sixty non-verbal cues per second. As well as responding to your words, she collects data based on your body language and voice tone. These signs are incredibly important in therapy, especially as opening up is sometimes difficult.

Computerized image of an AI Therapits called Ellie developed by the University of Southern California's Creative |Technologies Department.

Ellie, a Virtual Therapist. Image from Teresa Dey/ USC Institute for Creative Technologies via The Guardian.

AI mood tracker apps, such as Ginger, can also understand your mental health based on how you use your phone. It can detect symptoms based on factors such as your typing speed, sleep time, to how often you leave the house.

Is AI the Future of Wellbeing?

Mental health AI no doubt increases the accessibility of therapy. There is little to no cost to access the apps. There is also no limit to usage, in comparison to the small number of free in-person sessions often offered by healthcare systems before having to pay. Moreover, mental health apps offer 24/7 support. In contrast to the long waiting lists for in-person sessions (on average 12 weeks), virtual therapy provides help whenever you need it. With this availability, there is no need for issues to exacerbate before a session arrives. The convenience factor for those with busy schedules can also not be overstated.

Virtual therapy not only reduces cost barriers but opens up mental health resources to those across the world living in rural areas, where clinics are few and far between. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that nearly 40% of Americans live in areas without enough mental health professionals to meet the community’s needs.

The experience offered by AI therapy can also be seen as more comfortable, particularly for individuals who may find it embarrassing to share personal information with a human. The anonymity of virtual therapists offers comfort, making it an option for many who would never consider the vulnerability of in-person counselling, as well as the stigma often associated with it. 

The Missing Human Touch

The therapeutic effect of sharing thoughts and feelings with another person cannot be undermined. The empathy received from a human therapist ultimately seems incomparable to programmed AI responses, and many people are biased against even trying AI therapy for this reason. A Cornell University survey found that only 3.8% of responding psychiatrists thought that AI is likely to replace a clinician for empathetic care.

With so much of our lives spent staring at a screen, many are also unwilling to extend screen time for therapy, especially when positive mental health is so often associated with time away. The experience of talking to an actual person, going to a different space, and taking a break from other aspects of life, especially at the moment, seems irreplaceable.

AI’s impact in making therapy more accessible, and the support it offers to reduce pressure on overburdened healthcare systems is revolutionary. It has proved to be life support over lockdown, and its potential for the future is promising, but it cannot completely replace in-person therapy just yet.

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