MENTAL HEALTH APPS AND THE ROLE OF AI IN EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING
Mental health is a crucial yet often underestimated aspect of human well-being. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 5 people living in a post-conflict setting suffer from a mental health condition, as do 20% of children and teens, yet less than 2% of global government health expenditure is spent on addressing this issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, serving to weaken mental health amongst vulnerable members of the world’s population. Even with the lifting of global restrictions, many people have been left with residual health problems, such as long COVID, that isolate them and induce similar symptoms of anxiety and depression. The lingering impact on social contact left by the pandemic is thought to contribute towards what is currently referred to as the creeping ‘mental health crisis.’
In an effort to tackle this growing problem, people have taken to digital solutions, connecting with friends and family online as well as opting for remote telehealth services. With the development of artificial intelligence (AI), digital solutions for mental health have begun to become a lot more accessible and affordable, such as widely available AI mental health apps. AI has also begun to revolutionize conventional approaches to psychotherapy by aiding in diagnostics and treatment.
In this article, we will explore some of the applications and benefits of AI in mental health, as well as the disadvantages, concerns, and how AI may be used to improve future mental health outcomes.
Applications of AI in Mental Health
There are many applications of AI currently being used and investigated for improving mental health technology and outcomes. Some of them are helping psychologists and psychiatrists improve patient interaction and results, while others are directly enhancing mental health for those at risk or who suffer from mental disorders.
Personalization is one of the main ways that AI is improving mental health for all. AI can organize vast amounts of information in a fraction of the time that humans can, helping to streamline therapy sessions, tailor treatment interventions, and highlight when someone requires immediate help, such as suicide prevention assistance.
Natural language processing is a particularly pertinent function of AI that is used to analyze both written and spoken language in order to offer feedback. For those with mental health problems, natural language processing is incorporated into apps that use digital therapist bots and chat programs. These can provide useful information and suggestions to help the person make constructive changes to their behaviors and thinking, which directly improves their mental well-being.
There are already more than 10,000-20,000 mental health apps that have been created, many of which have taken to integrating AI into their systems.
Examples of useful AI mental health apps that provide AI chat therapy include:
Woebot, and Replika. Users can talk freely with the bot or, in Replika’s case, their virtual AI friend, about any issue and the bot will respond in a seemingly caring way that emulates an empathetic ear. It will also often make context-specific suggestions as a human companion or therapist might in order to change one’s outlook and help them to adopt a positive mindset and approach. This has far-reaching effects on overall mental well-being and related behaviors.
Headspace offers similar benefits to Woebot, however, it has the added bonus of direct after-hour telehealth services, where one can consult a psychiatrist or psychotherapist from their digital device at any hour.
Moodkit is another app that tracks and rates one’s mood on a daily basis in line with one's activities and daily diary entries. It provides actionable suggestions and allows the user to see and assess their own results through time.
Some of the above apps have a track record of improving the user's mood and mental well-being by 30-40% on average after several weeks of use.
For therapists, natural language processing can be used to condense notes from therapy sessions into an ordered format and to make advanced connections about their patients that they may overlook, especially with years and large amounts of data. An example of an AI tool therapists might appreciate in this regard is Lyssn.
Other applications of AI in mental health include:
- Gamification and Enhanced Motivational Techniques. Some AI apps take mental health strategies to new heights by turning them into a type of game (gamification) and giving them rewarding elements. These include taking one’s personal goals, aspirations, positive thoughts and activities and assigning a digital value to them, such as reward points or other forms of encouragement for the user. These apps may also take a learning app approach, walking one through questionnaires or game-like activities for a few minutes per day that help to shift one’s mindset. An example is Happify.
- Team Building. AI tools are being used to promote better communication and cohesion within professional teams, businesses, social groups and families. AI can identify areas of weakness and create solutions for improving them, which promotes better social interactions and mental health for all involved. SuperBetter is an example app that promotes team building using AI tools.
Will AI Replace Psychotherapy? AI Therapists and Virtual Counseling
While all this new technology may seem like an ultimate solution for global mental health with many attractive perks and features, it is unlikely to replace psychotherapy or psychiatry any time soon.
Instead, AI therapy apps are getting users to become more aware of how important their mental health is and to invest more time promoting it. This is encouraging people to seek out a psychotherapist when needed, showing better results during sessions, and doing away with the stigma that may have prevented them from seeking out professional help in the past.
Most people who have used an AI mental health app and who have gone to a therapist can vouch that an app cannot really replace professional help. Professionals are there to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions using various therapies, education, and medications.
An AI app can help people to:
- Track their mood and mental health progress
- Speak to a virtual person at any time they need to
- Get them to express themselves better
- Write daily diary entries
- Focus on changing towards a more positive mindset
- Encourage them to engage in activities that improve their mental well-being
Some mental health apps are marketed as being able to deploy common strategies like a psychotherapist, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This does not make them equitable to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. It sheds light on the overall approach the app uses to help the user tackle their mental health dilemmas.
For instance, a CBT-based approach may be as simple as getting the user to rephrase their thoughts more positively to an AI bot and providing encouragement for aligning their actions with their thoughts. A psychotherapist can provide more insight at a deeper level of psychoanalysis to help their clients improve their mental health, as well as refer them to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication as required. The same difference can be seen between going to a teacher for lessons versus making use of educational software to enhance one’s learning.
In this sense, these apps are more like an interactive diary and should be viewed as a tool capable of enhancing the benefit of professional help and strengthening overall mental well-being.
Benefits of AI in Mental Health
AI therapy can offer several advantages over traditional face-to-face therapy, such as:
- Accessibility: AI apps are accessible 24/7 and from any device with an internet connection, bypassing constraints for those who live in remote areas or who don’t have physical access to a therapist’s office. This can reduce waiting times for appointments as well as travel costs for users who need immediate or frequent support.
- Time-Sensitive Support and Intervention: Even those who have physical access may require immediate after-hour support and intervention until they can see their therapist. This is one major advantage of AI technologies, as users can get an instant bridging therapy session whenever they need it or can speak to a bot that can help them through a mental health crisis until they can get adequate support.
- Affordability: Digital solutions can be cheaper or even free compared to human therapists, who may not be covered by insurance. While AI therapy is not a viable replacement, it can help cut down on costs and the burden on healthcare systems by potentially lowering the amount of therapy or basic input required overall.
- Anonymity: AI therapy offers complete confidentiality, which may encourage a higher degree of expression. This can also reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health help.
- Adaptability: The content and style of the AI bot’s conversation can be tailored to the user’s preferences, needs, goals, and feedback, allowing for ultimate personalized intervention. AI can also use data from a wider variety of sources, including biometric sensors, social media, or electronic health records, to monitor the user and provide personalized feedback and recommendations.
Disadvantages of AI: Ethical Concerns and Real-World Scenarios
The application of AI tools for mental health has limits with the following:
- Reliability: Technology may not be reliable or consistent in its performance or functionality due to technical glitches, malfunctions, or errors. External factors, such as internet connectivity, battery life, or device compatibility, may affect its availability or usability.
- Validity: It is difficult to assess the validity or efficacy of current AI-based technologies without more time, data and testing. Data used currently to inform AI may not be generalizable to the entire global population, and the tech may require localized population training to perfect.
- Engagement: Not everyone wants to use technology to improve their well-being, and there is a slight contradiction in that technology detracts from health-promoting activities such as getting out or seeing real people. The real-world application of AI therapy may also be interrupted by other sources of digital entertainment or online distractions, lowering its efficacy.
- Ethics: Relying on AI raises ethical issues regarding the privacy and security of the user’s data, the accountability and transparency of the algorithms, the consent and autonomy of the user, and the potential harm or misuse of the technology. Legal frameworks are still being perfected with regard to all of these factors so as to protect the rights of users and manufacturers.
In light of these considerations, technology should not be seen as the ultimate mental health solution but rather as a complementary tool to enhance psychotherapy and intervention. To ensure safety and balance between AI tools and human skillsets, mental health technology should be better evaluated and subject to rigorous standards of quality and ethics. These are expected to mature in the next couple of years with more scientific investigation.
The Future of Mental Health Technology
The future of AI in mental health is both promising and uncertain. There are many opportunities and challenges that need to be addressed and explored alongside ethical and social implications. The role and impact of AI in mental healthcare will depend on how it is developed, used, and regulated.
In the future, AI in mental healthcare is expected to improve diagnostics and treatment outcomes by better integrating large-scale datasets, including biometrics, social media posts and conversations via email, phone calls and messaging. AI can interpret vocal data, language and biometrics with more speed and precision than humans can, although this implies a great deal of compliance, trust and adequate privacy.
Current advances and breakthroughs in mental health technologies include portable AI-infused diagnostic devices and software. Examples include:
- Neurosteer, a portable AI-powered EEG that non-invasively scans brainwave activity. This can greatly enhance the future of treating mental health disorders and neurological diseases, such as dementia, depression, PTSD and schizophrenia.
- Beyond Verbal that uses vocal analysis to provide accurate insights into biomarkers, emotions and overall mental health in order to contribute towards optimal diagnosis and treatment.
- Emotion AI which is a field of AI study that takes the user’s facial expressions to better interpret their emotions and give accurate feedback. Mental health apps are currently being developed that take facial features into consideration.
AI mental health apps are changing psychology by opening up new avenues for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental health disorders. AI therapy can offer accessible, affordable, anonymous, and adaptable speech-based therapy to users that point them in the right direction and help them to shift their mindset and mood. Mental health technologies can be effective tools for quickly integrating large-scale datasets, monitoring mental health through time, streamlining therapy, and improving mental health outcomes. However, AI mental health apps also face some challenges and limitations in terms of accuracy, ethics, reliability, and engagement. These apps should be used in a balanced way by both users and clinicians that promotes mental health safely and effectively.
-  https://www.who.int/health-topics/mental-health#tab=tab_2
-  https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2022-who-highlights-urgent-need-to-transform-mental-health-and-mental-health-care
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10230127/
-  https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/01/trends-mental-health-apps
-  https://www.caresource.com/newsroom/press-releases/artificial-intelligence-helps-prevent-suicide-in-ohio/
-  https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/07/psychology-embracing-ai
Disclaimer: Please note that Mya Care does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided is not intended to replace the care or advice of a qualified health care professional. The views expressed are personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Mya Care. Always consult your doctor for all diagnoses, treatments, and cures for any diseases or conditions, as well as before changing your health care regimen. Do not reproduce, copy, reformat, publish, distribute, upload, post, transmit, transfer in any manner or sell any of the materials in this blog without prior written permission from myacare.com.
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