Finding Mental Health Support in Generative AI

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Data Society
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July 2023
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As the maelstrom surrounding generative AI continues to make waves, a seemingly unrelated current is flowing through public awareness. A 2022 poll found that 90 percent of US adults believe that the nation is in the midst of a mental health crisis. In addition, many people in the US face obstacles as they seek care, such as a limited number of healthcare providers to meet their needs. These challenging trends, coinciding with recent technological advances, give rise to emerging applications of generative AI tools that support mental wellness.

A Nation’s Mental Health Challenges

Mental and emotional health conditions range from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder to disorders associated with substance use and eating. Several metrics highlight the scope of these issues across the US. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 22.8 percent of all US adults had Any Mental Illness (AMI) in 2021, noting higher prevalence among women and younger adults. In addition, a recent study found that 30 percent of adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in February 2023, and Centers for Disease Control research has found that depression has a disproportionate impact based on race and ethnicity.

Compounding these challenges are barriers that stand between individuals in need and access to care. 24.7 percent of adults with a mental health condition report that their treatment needs are unmet. 42 percent of adults cite affordability as a barrier to receiving care, and 10 percent of adults with mental illness are uninsured. In addition, estimates indicate that there is only one mental health provider for every 350 individuals in the US, and more than 25 million rural Americans live in areas designated Mental Health Shortage Areas. Other common obstacles to receiving care include transportation challenges and fear of the stigma associated with seeking treatment for issues related to mental and emotional health.


Generative AI as Mental Healthcare Companion

As generative AI technologies advance ever closer to mimicking human responses, their potential to help fill existing voids in mental healthcare grows. These tools offer possibilities for bolstering mental wellness not only by contributing to the treatment of mental and emotional health issues, but also by supporting individuals through everyday personal and professional challenges.

Emotional Support for Individuals in Need
IoT devices with emotion AI capabilities can augment mental healthcare by continuously tracking and reacting to behavioral and visual cues. Capable of providing immediate, around-the-clock attention to emotional needs, these technologies can circumvent some of the barriers that commonly limit access to ongoing care and offer support to individuals experiencing both geographic and emotional isolation. They can also serve as discrete sounding boards for individuals in need who are not comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with other people.  

When trained by behavioral health professionals, devices that are equipped with natural language processing capabilities and sensors can detect patterns in facial expressions, vocal tone, speech, online activity, and physical activity to recognize fluctuations in mood. They can then offer personalized messaging or recommendations for managing mental and emotional health issues.

Support for the Caregivers
These AI-generated companions can ease the burden of beleaguered healthcare professionals by providing them with insights into their patients’ progress, setbacks, and potential crises. They can monitor medication usage, detect and document signs of the onset of problems, and alert healthcare providers to the potential need for additional intervention. By serving as constant companions to individuals in need, these devices can buttress the efforts of mental healthcare professionals as well as the estimated 8.4 million people in the US who act as caregivers to adults with emotional or mental health challenges.

Wellness in the Workplace
Mental healthcare aided by generative AI can also help organizations address the increasingly critical concerns about wellness in the workforce. A recent study found that burnout among US workers increased by 16 percent between May and August of 2022, making the US the country with the highest reported burnout rate globally. Recognizing the weight of this issue, 68 percent of organizational leaders report that employee wellbeing is among their top three priorities. 

Generative AI offers opportunities for employers to promote mental wellness in the workplace through tools that can respond to employees’ individual needs. These technologies can recognize signs of burnout or discouragement and offer personalized messages of encouragement and individualized recommendations for activities that can engage them.

A Place for Machines in the Future of Human Care

While applications for generative AI in mental healthcare are promising, the complexities of the human psyche require care that is administered with human oversight. AI-powered devices for mental healthcare must be trained carefully and skillfully to ensure that they respond appropriately and productively to the input they receive. In addition, there is much work to be done with limiting cultural bias in the training data and developing practices and procedures that responsibly and ethically collect, manage, and monitor personal data. 

However, as these technologies mature, so does their potential to fill a dire need for mental health resources. In the hands of responsible professionals, generative AI can expand access to care for individuals coping with mental and emotional health challenges and support the arduous efforts of caregivers.

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