Artificial Intelligence: Technology and Mental Health

In our ever-changing world, different areas of technology are evolving every single day. One such area is artificial intelligence. More and more, we see artificial intelligence being used in the field of health. How has it helped in the field of mental illness? Where are we now, and where are we headed? Are there pros and cons to using artificial intelligence for mental health?

What is artificial intelligence (AI)? AI involves developing programs and machines that mimic human intelligence and behaviour. We are able to do this by using information from algorithms, models, and data collected over time. In a report commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2021, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) further explains that artificial intelligence programs can learn autonomously from different data and algorithms to perform tasks like “problem-solving and pattern recognition”.

Artificial intelligence and mental health is not a recent phenomenon, even if interest and development has intensified in the last few years. We can go back to the 1960s when Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T), created a computer program called Eliza. The goal of Eliza was to recreate Rogerian therapy, which is a therapy where the patient speaks and the therapist will repeat said language back to the patient. In his article “Can AI Treat Mental Illness?”, author Dhruv Khullar explains that Weizenbaum had created the program with the thought that computers would not be able to recreate human interactions that would have a true effect on the individual, but was surprised when those who tried the program found it helpful.

As the decades passed, more and more researchers and scientists worked on creating programs that could act as a therapist or help guide individuals during times of psychological stress. Today, there are a myriad of online programs, apps, and chatbot services using artificial intelligence that aim to help users through their mental health struggles (see box, p. 2).

Artificial intelligence programs come with a list of pros and cons. Benefits include the fact that a person can remain anonymous, and individuals may express themselves more freely than they would face to face with a real person. AI chatbots are advertised as available 24/7, which provides immediate assistance and flexibility to someone who may have a busy schedule or cannot find or afford regular appointments with a healthcare professional. On the other hand, individuals using these tools need to be careful. Chatbots do not operate under the supervision of a doctor so the AI tool may not provide accurate help. Because technology is always changing and can sometimes be unpredictable (for example, there can be bugs in the program), users have to be aware that the AI program itself may get something wrong, or perhaps it might not connect with the individual like they need. It can be tricky, especially with a delicate subject like an individual’s mental health.

So where is this heading? According to the CADTH report, research is being done on the ways AI may detect and diagnose mental illnesses by using things like biomarkers, neuroimaging, and genetics. Research initiatives on treatments include looking at artificial intelligence chatbots and improving current ones. Scientists are examining the ways that individuals react to these chatbots and how they respond to a specific treatment so that in the future they can predict a person’s trajectory. They also want to explore the possibilities of creating wearable devices and smartphone-based sensors that would be able to collect data for further research and development. We likely can’t imagine all the new ways that artificial intelligence will help us in the future.

All this aside, when you call us, you speak to a live person, not AI! Give us a call at 514-486-1448.

– Gabrielle Lesage

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Curious about chatbots?

Here are three that offer mental health services:

1) Woebot: This chatbot service incorporates Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques, which help identify distortions in thinking and help guide emotional understanding. According to Woebot Health, it identifies an individual’s emotional model and learns their mood patterns. They specifically say they are not therapy, but rather a guide. Currently, Woebot is only available in the United States if you were part of their study or have an access code.

2) Youper: Like Woebot, Youper is an AI chatbot that also uses CBT techniques. An individual fills in a mental health assessment, talks with the AI chatbot, and can monitor their own symptoms. The app also provides insights into a person’s mental, emotional, and behavioural health. The company states that information from the app can be transmitted to an user’s health care provider. A premium subscription is needed to access the app’s services.

3) Wysa: This AI chatbot uses CBT as well as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), meditation, breathing, and over 150 other evidence-based exercises that can help with anxiety, sleep, and other aspects of a person’s daily life. The AI chatbot is free (as are the tools offered in the chat), but a premium account grants access to all the digital toolboxes and access to a real-life professional.

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