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Tracking Mental Health

[IMAGE: HOTLITTLEPOTATO/WIRED]

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects nearly 300 million people around the world. People of all ages can experience depression, a mental health disorder that not only impairs their functionality at work and at home, but in some cases lead to suicide. The WHO states that suicide is the cause of death for roughly 800,000 people every year.

To address these issues, we must take them seriously. We need a way to offer treatment to everyone, no matter where they live. And we need a way of bringing inexpensive on-demand therapy to people, not making them seek help. Technology is part of how we will accomplish this end.

There are a few startups that employ medical doctors and machine-learning programmers side-by-side. These companies are part of a push towards integrating the tech we use everyday with mental healthcare.

Mindstrong, an AI startup, wants to turn your smartphone into an emotional diagnostics device. Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Thomas Insel, president and co-founder of the company, believes people need a personal way to measure the state of their mental health. We can already get biometric data from our phones, like pulse and activity level, Mindstrong intends to glean information about our emotional state from them too.

The idea is clever; we use our devices differently when we are mad than when we are chilling out. Mindstrong wants to track your physical interactions with your phone, and what you are doing on it, and use that info to form a picture of your mental state.

Mindstrong is designed to give those insights to doctors, bridging the between visits gap. It is only available with a doctor involved. Think about your physical health routine: most of us don’t have personal trainers, or nutrionists in our lives, like movie stars do. We use a cheap gym, or workout for free. We watch our own diets, or lookup healthy recipes online we even self-medicate for headaches and sore knees with aspirin. For major health problems you see a doctor, otherwise we maintain our physical well-being our own.

We don’t have resources like that for anxiety and depression.  You can go to therapy, visit a hospital, or call emergency services. There is no aspirin for depression, there aren’t 24-hour on demand therapists that cost little-to-nothing and can be summoned with the press of a button. We need a bridge between needing someone to talk to and needing professional help. For our mental health what we could use is daily evaluation and personalized insight and AI can do that.

The work is underway with offerings like Woebot, available now, though we are not quite there yet.

Woebot is an AI-backed chatbot that helps people discuss their anxiety and depression. It leads people in conversation, remembers what they say, and follows-up over time. The best part about it is that it uses text messages, emoji, and short videos to engage users. If you have access to Facebook Messenger, you have access to Woebot.

It is not designed to replace human-to-human therapy, of course, but instead builds on the fact that just talking about your mood on a daily basis is proven to help fight anxiety and depression.

Hospitalization for a broken leg probably isn’t going to cost you your job, but what about being admitted for two weeks because of anxiety? It is a weighty decision for most people to even begin the process of seeking help, much less follow-through every day.

AI can provide immediate relief for anxious and/or depressed people, and that is a big step on the path toward reducing the suicide rate for good. Mindstrong’s AI will live in your phone, gathering information about your mood. Woebot wants you to open up to it so it can teach you about mental healthcare techniques.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who are not ready to reach out to a human it is the soft glow of your smartphone as you tell an artificial intelligence how you are feeling.