The machine will see you now: AI & mental health

Dean Withey, CEO at ubisend writes of the growing trend of AI and its potential benefits in engaging with mental health patients. 


Would you be willing to discuss your medical concerns with an intelligent machine? Well according to Censuswide research, over two thirds (68%) of UK citizens would.

So, with the recent passing of Mental Health Awareness Week, it is good timing for the spokesman of a company who builds intelligent machines to weigh in with some answers to the big questions: What role can machines play in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues? Can a machine really help?


The human touch

Mental health therapists are trained to interact and listen beyond language; they pick up on subtleties in behaviour, body language and notice things that aren’t said out loud or written down. Part of the healing process in mental health comes from the relationship with a counsellor, the empathy found in human interaction, and the realisation that other people aren’t always perfect. Right now, no amount of AI training, machine power or ‘geekery’ can replace this bond.

A machine cannot engage in a Freudian conversation of an individual’s history with their father, or initiate Gestalt-style role play. It can’t relate to the pressures of life or dealing with depression. In 2017, a machine is not a cure.

It can, however, be a tool for recognition, admittance and support.


Starting a conversation

In most – if not all – healing journeys, the first step is the realisation that something may be wrong and admitting it to yourself. It’s the self-diagnosis, the doubt and the not knowing if you actually need help. At this stage, few people are ready to pick up the phone, to arrange a meeting or speak to someone but they have probably never even said any of their concerns out loud.

At this early stage, a text or voice conversation with a machine would be an excellent tool for people to ask questions and discuss issues they might not feel comfortable talking through with a human.

As it’s a computer, there are no gender, age or cultural barriers around talking about difficult issues. There will be no emotion and no judgement. There would only be evidence-led, on-demand advice and direction for further help, should it be needed.

For example, if an individual talks to a machine and realises they do wish to escalate their level of support and speak to a human, the machine will always know who to direct them to. It will have instant data on availability, location and services. It can easily connect users directly to the resources designed for their specific needs.


A constant companion

As well as this first contact, an intelligent machine may be useful for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Alongside regular sessions with a counsellor, consistent interaction with a personal AI-machine can help with grounding techniques, journaling and mindfulness. Although CBT may not work long-term or solve the deeper problems, regular contact, affirmations and coping mechanisms would be ideal for dealing with short-term anxieties. It’s just having ‘someone’ there to talk to about your day.

Ultimately, a machine may help individuals remain within the window of tolerance, to help them manage their emotions and reflect on their feelings. Smarter versions could help with reframing the moment and perhaps deliver specific techniques for breathing and focused thought.

For institutions and care providers, it is the ability to do more with less. To confidently offer individuals personal information and advice in an equitable and non-biased way, all at the same time.


Meeting demand

In our most recent research, we found that younger generations want information and answers on-demand. They are accustomed to, and prefer, engaging via text and they’re looking for personalised services. Increasingly, people are getting ever more comfortable interacting with a machine. For many, not talking to a human is a non-issue.

Today, a perfect storm has been created where technology can now match or exceed an individual’s expectations. There no longer needs to be a conversation gap. When discussing mental health and personal issues, I believe many people would prefer not to have to converse with a ‘real’ person – at least initially. And thankfully, we’re in an age where the technology can now deliver


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