Does AI have a role to play in mental health care?

By Sebastiaan de Vries, Co-founder and CTO, Limbic.AI
How can AI help expand access to much-needed mental health solutions - and what challenges need to be overcome to get there?

As the demand for mental health support grows, so too has the application of technology in meeting that demand. 

But while there are countless examples of AI being used to drive improvements across industries such as retail and financial services, its use in mental health therapy is still very much in its nascency. 

So what role could AI play in expanding access to mental health solutions - and what challenges need to be overcome to pave the way for more widespread adoption of the technology within the field? 

Here, I’ll look at what needs to be done in order to realise AI’s benefits, and take a look at some of the early examples of how the technology can be applied in supporting practitioners. 

Surging demand for mental health care 

The need for accessible, affordable mental health treatment is growing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports a 13% rise in mental health conditions between 2007-2017 - an increase that has disproportionately impacted young people, with 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffering from a mental health condition. And research from the UK mental health charity Mind suggests that a quarter of people will experience a mental health problem of some kind every year in England. 

While there are a multitude of factors behind this surge, it is clear that the pandemic has played - and continues to play - a considerable part. WHO research shows that, during the first year of Covid-19, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% as the loneliness of social isolation took its toll. On top of this, the ongoing situation in Ukraine which has contributed to the worst cost of living crisis in 40 years, is only likely to have exacerbated these issues.

Early adopters 

While the pandemic proved to be a major catalyst of mental health issues amongst the population, it also highlighted the need for better digital healthcare. With millions quarantined indoors and unable to access the in-person support they needed, the role of technology in delivering virtual care had never been clearer than under lockdown. 

In response, many clinicians and healthcare providers turned to telehealth and apps, offering video conferencing or telephone-based therapy, or, in other cases, promoting the use of self-care or wellness apps, many of which were unregulated or non-evidence based. 

There are fewer examples of organisations effectively deploying AI - although a small number of early adopters are beginning to showcase the vast potential of using the technology in this way. Last year, for example, The Trevor Project - the suicide prevention and crisis intervention charity for LGBTQ young people - launched its ‘Crisis Contact Simulator,’ an AI-powered counsellor training tool that simulates digital conversations with young people in crisis. The tool was developed for the charity’s counsellor training programme and uses AI to simulate back-and-forth dialogue, allowing trainees to practice realistic conversations. 

On the frontline

To me, what’s exciting about The Trevor Project’s application of AI is that it plays to the strengths of this type of digital technology. Rather than attempting to use AI to replace trained mental health experts altogether - an approach that would have very obvious limitations - it instead harnesses the technology to drive training efficiencies, freeing up crisis counsellors’ time to be used in-person, where it matters most. 

This is why we developed Limbic Access, our digital mental health triage assistant, with the same hybrid approach in mind. Our online therapy assistant, which is powered by AI, works in conjunction with clinicians, assisting with patient self-referrals to help people access the help they need while unlocking service providers’ time to focus on delivering therapy. 

For example, our data shows that over the last three months working with Insight IAPT in the Wirral region, Limbic has helped to create approximately 243 clinical hours and save 45 admin hours.

Where next for AI in mental health care? 

As the development and application of AI technology evolves, so too will its potential in the mental healthcare space. 

It is still early days, and there are many challenges to be overcome, not least from a regulation standpoint. If we are to ever reach a point of widespread adoption, we will need the introduction of clear policies and regulatory standards that provide patients and practitioners alike with the peace of mind that the advice they are receiving is evidence-based, and that their personal data is safe. Steps are being taken in this respect, but we still have a long way to go. 

We must remember, too, that whatever advancements we see in healthcare AI over the coming years, technology will never have the capacity to replace humans altogether, and certainly not when it comes to mental health. Ultimately, while no amount of innovation will do away with the need for the human touch, what we can do as clinicians and technologists is work together to take a hybrid approach. The more patients that can access mental health care, the better - and AI has a vital and exciting role to play in making that happen.

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