AI's Role in Mental Healthcare: Impacts and Challenges
Updated on Jul, 11 2023
Written by Dr. George Laliotis
With a new era of normalization in seeking mental healthcare, AI can fill the gap between the demand and availability of professionals. AI in mental health is going to bridge the gap and open new opportunities for the field to advance.
With so much advancement being made in medicine, we sometimes overlook the developments made in mental healthcare. Healthcare professionals spent so much time and energy trying to combat the pandemic that the public almost forgot about the importance of mental health. There is significantly more attention paid to mental health now and for good reason.
In this article we will be covering the integration of AI in mental health, how AI will be used in mental health research, and what the future looks like for AI in mental health.
The role of AI in Mental Health
The role of AI in mental health is quickly becoming a promising area of research and application. One of the most significant ways AI in mental health is contributing is in diagnosis. Traditional methods of diagnosing would rely on subjective evaluations, which would yield different diagnoses depending on the professional.
On the other hand, AI trained for mental health can analyze vast amounts of data, including behavioral patterns, speech, and physiological responses, to provide more objective and comprehensive assessments. Machine learning is already used to spot patterns unnoticed or naked to the human eye, and spotting physical movements and expressions in interviews is not much different from spotting mental health symptoms.
AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants are also paving the way for new ways for patients to be able to. These AI-driven interventions offer round-the-clock support, maintain user anonymity, and can adapt their responses based on individual needs, fostering a sense of comfort and safety for users seeking mental health assistance.
Additionally, AI is revolutionizing mental health treatment through innovative therapeutic applications. Studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University are already showing that virtual reality paired with AI in mental health applications can show drastic improvements in patients.
Where patients have difficulty talking to people face to face or dealing with real situations, virtual reality offers them a controlled environment with low pressure for them to comfortably explore their mental health through different customizable scenarios.
This can make it easier for patients to process trauma in a virtual world before dealing with it by talking to someone face to face. Putting patients in a virtual world also gives them more freedom to give them a place to act out freely without fear of judgment or repercussions.
Conversational AI Therapists for Mental Health
Conversational AI therapists have emerged as a promising and innovative approach to addressing mental health challenges. These AI-powered chatbots are advanced enough to hold conversations with users, simulating human-like interactions. The most obvious benefit of chatbots powered by AI in mental health care is scale.
With more and more people seeking mental health assistance and money on a tighter budget, these chatbots can provide mass amounts of people at once. While they are not complete replacements for mental health professionals, conversational AI therapists can offer immediate assistance by providing a listening ear and emotional support at any time, day or night.
Users can chat with these virtual therapists from the comfort and privacy of their homes, giving a chance to those who would have otherwise been embarrassed to seek mental health help.
Another big advantage of AI-driven chatbots in mental health patients is their ability to develop empathy and adjust their style to the patient. As time goes on and more people chat with Mental Health Conversational AI, it will build a bigger data pool and do a better job carrying out discussions with patients.
Ethics are extremely important to consider when developing AI mental health chatbots. It should be made abundantly clear that all chats will be used to train the algorithm and while they are anonymous, the material will still be processed.
A large risk to address is the chance of an AI mental health chatbot using extremely counterproductive responses that could do serious harm to someone in a fragile state. AI in mental health chatbots can sometimes malfunction or be compromised and it is important to have safety measurements in check.
While the app can claim to not be responsible and requires users to understand that they should seek professional medical help for professional help, they are still at risk. Extra safety protocols would need to be put into place to make sure that certain phrases and topics would be automatically avoided to prevent any unforeseen situations.
When the movie Her (2013) came out it seemed like complete science fiction to have a human develop feelings for an AI. Now with advanced AI being available to everyone and making its way into daily interactions, some people may begin to attach human feelings to a chatbot. As chatbots begin to mimic human behaviors better every year, it is only a matter of time before some people begin to develop parasocial relationships with an AI.
It is important that the AI in mental health chatbots is tuned to sound human enough to carry out a productive conversation but still remind the user that they are just interacting with an app and need a human medical professional to get proper treatment.
5 Challenges of AI in Mental Health
1. Ethics and Security
As discussed before, mental health and AI meet at very dangerous points. Ethical considerations are one of the biggest factors to be considered when developing AI in mental health applications.
AI-powered algorithms can gather and analyze vast amounts of personal data, including sensitive information about an individual's mental health condition on one server, which can be susceptible to cyber-attacks and data compromise. Ensuring the privacy and security of this data is of utmost importance to protect the confidentiality and well-being of our users.
2. Fair Representation
Another challenge lies in addressing social biases in AI algorithms used in mental health applications. Dr Ledia Lazeri, Regional Advisor for Mental Health at WHO/Europe stated that “AI application use in mental health research is unbalanced and is mostly used to study depressive disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
This indicates a significant gap in our understanding of how they can be used to study other mental health conditions,” While it is great that certain aspects of mental health are addressed, it is important that advancements be also made in other mental health issues.
These biases can lead to a misguided focus on certain communities that are at risk but overshadow large portions of the population that can benefit immensely from AI in mental health apps.
Unfortunately, a medical professional cannot go after each chatbot and monitor every conversation. The accuracy of AI in mental health apps can sometimes falter and give horrible information. While AI algorithms can analyze large datasets to detect patterns and trends, there is always a risk of false positives or negatives.
This is why it is so important for users to know that they are dealing with a tool, not a medical professional. Relying completely on AI for diagnosis and treatment, as personalized as all the information is, still needs to be looked over by an actual medical professional to spot any serious mistakes that could have dire consequences.
People struggling with mental health may not have a sound mind to review their non-professional diagnosis or advice given by an AI in a mental health app and take it as sound advice. It is vital to view AI as a supplementary tool rather than a replacement for human medical professionals.
4. Access and Inclusion
According to the "AI gone mental": engagement and Ethics in data-driven technology for mental health editorial, it appears that key stakeholders are currently excluded from the discussions about AI in mental health – patients, service users, carers, and families.
While AI in Mental Health chatbots is already being rolled out for public use, they are still not completely trained on a large scale with important stakeholders. It is important that a diverse group of stakeholders representing different socioeconomic, cultural, and health statuses have a chance to properly give feedback.
Access is also an important part of having a fair AI in mental health systems. Not everyone has equal access to the internet, smartphones, or other digital devices required to use AI-powered applications.
This can lead to a cycle of underrepresented groups in mental health care becoming more alienated, with vulnerable populations being left behind. Ensuring that AI-driven mental health tools are accessible and inclusive is probably most important because society cannot improve if everyone’s mental health is not addressed.
5. Human Touch
Lastly, there is a concern that AI in mental health may dehumanize people’s relationship with treatment and diagnosis. This is not a major concern as AI mental health chatbots are just tools and not replacements for medical professionals.
Some people may feel a strong need for a human connection and not feel comfortable chatting with an AI which is completely normal. With AI freeing up more time for medical professionals, no one should be obligated to have to go through chatbots, especially when they are not somewhere well mentally.
The human connection between patients and therapists is the groundwork for mental health treatment, and AI cannot entirely replicate it. A balance is needed between the benefits of AI-driven efficiency and the human touch in mental health care.
3 Best AI Chatbots and Apps for Mental Health in 2023
Youper.ai is one of the most engaging mental health AI chatbots available on the market. It is not just a specialized AI to chat with but a fully engaging app with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Problem-Solving Therapy (PST), and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
It has a full journaling space to write out to give yourself time to reflect. Youper is completely based on evidence-based therapy and has been shown to be one of the more effective solutions to anxiety on the market.
Solutions like WoeBot let users pick what specialized bot they want to chat with. Anywhere from substance abuse to maternal health, WoeBot has a specialized AI that is preloaded with needed information to give users accurate and personalized data. Through positive reinforcement, it aims to get users to seek professional help through interventions.
Other apps like Wysa aim to completely imitate a therapist and give people a safe space to chat with an AI that slowly learns about them over the week and begins to slowly develop a personalized AI-powered therapist for the user persona. They have a scalable option for offices that are high-stress and need to give employees a way to keep their mental health in check.
University of Tokyo, JMDC Inc. study showed that early intervention targeting the stabilization of sleep is an effective measure of the onset of mental illness.
Sleep abnormalities were identified three months before the emergence of mental illness from Fitbit wearable data. With wearables and data tracking becoming more common, this large data can help AI make major predictions about mental health without needing any input from the users.
The Future of AI in Mental Health
The future of AI in mental healthcare is going to revolutionize diagnosis, treatment, and accessibility. AI's potential in mental healthcare lies in its ability to analyze vast amounts of user data at unbelievable speeds, notice new patterns, and do a better job onboarding patients.
Machine learning algorithms can identify patterns in patient records, genetic data, and medical imaging that humans cannot compete with, leading to earlier detection of diseases and improved patient outcomes.
As it becomes more commonplace to chat with AI bots, we will not be seeing the lines between medical professionals and AI blurred, but acknowledge it as a tool mental health professionals use to better diagnose, treat, and follow up on their patients with.
AI in mental health is here to stay. Whether that is in dealing directly with patients, assisting doctors, or improving the field of research. There are already many AI-powered chatbots to begin anonymously discussing mental health with and seeing your journey uncovered, and the chatbots are getting smarter day by day.
Despite the many challenges needed to be overcome by developers, the field is rapidly expanding and beginning to integrate at lightning speeds.
It is best to embrace this new change, even though it is not being forced, and help AI improve not only our individual mental health but entire communities.
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