First, some facts. According to the World Health Organisation, depression affects more than 300 million people across the globe. Around another 300 million suffer from anxiety disorders. Incidence of those conditions and other mental health disorders means that in 2019, poor mental health is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide.
It’s a stark picture. Made all the more concerning by the fact that taboos around discussing mental health prevent many people from seeking help, or even understanding that they have a health condition that can be diagnosed and treated.
And when a person with a mental health condition does seek help, another problem often kicks in: absence or chronic shortage of psychologists, counsellors and other mental health services. In the UK, around one in four people will experience a mental health disorder each year. But the NHS is in the middle of a crisis in mental health provision: one in 10 posts are unfilled and latest numbers show that over 23,000 mental health staff, including counsellors, psychologists and support staff, left the NHS in the 12 months following May 2017. It’s a picture echoed in many other affluent countries (we’ll get on to less affluent countries in a minute).
Where does technology fit into this picture?
There’s been plenty of talk recently about the role that unhealthy use of technologies may be playing in depression and anxiety, especially among teen users. But now another picture is also starting to emerge. That is, the power of AI-fuelled conversational agents to spark a profound change in the way we diagnose and care for those with mental health conditions.
Across the last handful of years, academics and practitioners have begun to experiment with the power of AI to help those with depression, anxiety and other common mental health problems. Now, a trickle of evidence is starting to develop that AI-fuelled chatbots can provide meaningful, effective therapies to these people. One recent study by University College Dublin found that 94% of adults would be willing to engage with connected mental health technology. Meanwhile, a recent study by Northwestern University in the US found that an AI-fuelled chatbot that delivered a version of cognitive behavioural therapy was able to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in college students.
So we stand at the outset of a revolution that might bring with it the most amazing kinds of consequences. AI counsellors could help mitigate the chronic shortage of counsellors and therapists in the UK and elsewhere. They could make mental health therapies such as CBT available to millions who otherwise would never have access to them — for financial reasons, because of embarrassment or shame, or because of poor health provision.
AI-fuelled chatbots could even make psychological counselling available to those in some of the most remote, poorest or most dangerous places on Earth. Recent work has busted the long-held myth that depression and anxiety are disorders of the rich, affluent west. The truth is that they occur in the world’s poorest countries too, but often go unnoticed and undiagnosed. Imagine AI conversational agents bringing help to those in most desperate need, including, for example, adults and children dealing with the chronic trauma of living in a war-zone. This chatbot provided psychological counselling to refugees of the brutal Syrian war.
So often in this blog we’ve talked about the power of AI to promote human flourishing in the 21st-century. Mental health disorders constitute a scourge that causes untold human suffering. Helping to alleviate that suffering — and to unlock vast new quantities of human potential, creativity and happiness that would result — is surely one of the great prizes in view.
Of course, there’s a huge amount of work to be done. Right now our understanding of if, how and when AIs can offer effective mental health therapies is limited at best. We need much more high quality evidence; and that means proper clinical trials of chatbots as a treatment for depression, anxiety and more.
But the prize for this work could be immense. The field is wide open. Let’s run into it.
Guest blog by David Mattin — Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching.
David advises many of the world’s leading brands on the future of consumerism and technological change. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption and is a columnist for BA Business Life.