How AI is being used to help tackle mental health issues

As businesses put more focus on employee wellbeing, they're looking at the ways AI and machine learning can help identify and treat mental health issues in the workplace.

Mental health issues greatly affect people in the UK. A government report entitled Thriving at Work highlighted that 15 per cent of workers have some symptoms of existing mental health conditions, which according to ONS labour figures means that just over 4.9m workers will experience a mental health issue.

Good health = good business

Thankfully businesses are following the general trend towards being more open about mental health, and in recent years have begun to put a stronger focus on employee wellbeing. This has included introducing simple workplace benefits like discounted gym membership or free fruit in the canteen through to more profound changes, such as introducing greater flexible working options to improve employees' work-life balance and even providing counselling services for staff dealing with mental health issues.

Although this is the right thing to do, these actions are not entirely altruistic, as business leaders understand that when the workforce is unwell, the bottom line suffers.

"The government report found that employers are losing between £33bn and £42bn every year due to poor mental health as employees are less productive or off sick. A people-first culture, where businesses champion a culture of openness and safety is ultimately just good business," says Josh Krichefski, ceo of MediaCom UK. 

A variety of technology initiatives are being used to improve mental health and one area of research revolves around the use of AI and machine learning (ML) to identify and treat individuals dealing with mental health problems.

"By using data, AI and ML we can help to quantify mental wellbeing, decode its effects and provide individuals with practical, clinically-proven methods for self-improvement," points out Dr David Plans, CEO and co-founder of healthcare start-up BioBeats.

Chatbots as counsellors

Academic researchers and tech companies alike are looking into different projects around AI and mental health management. In particular, in recent years we've seen a rise in mobile apps using AI to address mental health issues through the use of chatbots. This is because many people who might otherwise be reluctant to seek help feel more comfortable using an app on their phone to self-monitor and manage their own mental health.

"Because chatbots are infinitely scalable, they'll become the first line of defence, helping us to plug the gap left by the shortfall of mental healthcare professionals," notes Dan Boot, head of digital, disruptive innovation and healthcare company RB. "Humans will always be needed to tackle more complex challenges, but digital technologies may be able to help manage conditions such as anxiety to a level where medics need not be involved. 

"Built with the understanding that consumers must engage regularly with such solutions to benefit from them, these apps provide an enjoyable user experience that people actually want to return to," he continues. "This presents a significant step forward from the previous generation of app-based solutions, which merely assembled traditional cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques into a digital format."

Although many chatbots are aimed directly at consumers, businesses are also looking into their use. In Canada, for example, Saint Elizabeth Health Care recently took part in a 30-day pilot using an AI-enabled chatbot called Tess, which was designed to help caregivers set goals, manage emotions and avoid burnout.

Diagnosing depression via voice

A lot of research into how AI and ML can improve mental health diagnosis and treatment is still underway, and at the University of Alberta researchers have developed AI algorithms that can more accurately detect depression through vocal cues. The team is currently working on the development of a mobile app that will record and analyse the sound of the user's voice while on the phone.

"This will be analysed to predict depression severity and the system could be used to notify an emergency contact or healthcare professional if indicators are severe or persistent," says PhD student Mashrura Tasnim.

"More and more data are becoming available from an increasing variety of wearables and the ability of ML algorithms to construct predictive models improves continuously. We hope to combine these two advances to help earlier diagnosis of mental disorders and more timely care and support," adds Professor Eleni Stroulia.

Overcome social anxiety

Another interesting project is an online treatment programme designed to help people dealing with social anxiety. This is a common disorder that can affect people's daily lives and AI-Therapy's Overcome Social Anxiety programme uses AI to build a profile of the user and create a CBT-based treatment programme tailored specifically to them. Currently the company is working with health clinics but has already had interest from businesses that would like to make the programme available to their staff. 

"Traditional face-to-face therapy is expensive. However, technology including AI will create new alternatives along the lines of my programme," says Dr Fjola Helgadottir, director of AI-Therapy. "These programmes are highly scalable, which will make them cost effective for end users and corporate clients," she notes.

Business leaders step up

Looking forward, Plans believes that wellbeing strategies will be a core part of business planning and that mental health care will soon be mandated by the UK government. This is something that's actually being pushed by business - last year fifty chief executives including Krichefski signed an open letter to the Prime Minister to make mental health first aid mandatory in the workplace.

"Simple, yet important steps like this help rid the taboos surrounding mental health that prevent us from talking about it. But we can and should do more as businesses leaders," Krichefski says. "Businesses need to step up and talk about the problem and then introduce initiatives that are bespoke to their workforce. We all have mental health; it's on the continuum. Only when that's truly understood will we destigmatise it," he concludes.