PYMNTS MonitorEdge May 2024

Mental Health Sector Is Adopting AI-Powered Apps for Accessible Care

The mental health arena is buzzing with the entry of AI-powered apps that promise fast and accessible care. 

Amid soaring demand for mental health support, artificial intelligence (AI) apps are sparking debate among experts. These tools offer hope for bridging care gaps but come with concerns over efficacy and ethics. As the field navigates this digital wave, experts say the challenge lies in determining whether AI can genuinely complement the human touch in mental health care or if it serves merely as a high-tech stopgap.

“AI is incredibly useful for mental health apps because it can personalize care at scale, offering tailored support and interventions based on individual user data,” Derek Du Chesne, CEO of Better U, a mental wellness company, and creator of the Better U mental wellness app and patient portal, told PYMNTS. 

“This custom approach enhances engagement and effectiveness. AI algorithms can also analyze patterns in behavior and mood over time, identifying potential mental health issues before they become more serious, enabling proactive care,” he added. “Additionally, AI can provide 24/7 support, crucial for those moments when human therapists are not available, ensuring individuals have access to help whenever they need it.”

The mental health apps are part of a growing trend of using AI for customer service. As PYMNTS has reported, consumers unknowingly interact with AI daily, from thwarting credit card fraud to using chatbots for returns. Meeranda, a Toronto company, claims readiness for their visual AI, aiming to mimic real-time human interaction, diverging from typical chatbots and not competing with ChatGPT.

Therapy on Demand?

The digital health landscape is experiencing an unprecedented boom in AI-powered mental health applications, a trend underscored by the sheer volume and variety of options available to consumers. Recent market analyses reveal that there are now over 10,000 mental health-related apps, with a significant portion leveraging artificial intelligence to offer personalized therapy, mood tracking, and crisis intervention.

For instance, apps like Woebot and Wysa, which use AI to engage users in therapeutic conversations, have collectively garnered millions of downloads.

On the more clinical side, Limbic AI uses machine learning to analyze voice biomarkers to detect signs of depression and mood disorders. At the same time, Ellipsis Health measures anxiety and depression through AI-powered speech analysis.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently developed a new mental health assessment tool powered by AI that matches the effectiveness of widely used “gold standard” questionnaires for detecting symptoms of depression. Published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, their study found that the AI system, designed by Aiberry, can accurately assess a person’s mental health through analysis of text, audio and video signals during an interview conducted by a bot.

“On the provider side, AI could assist therapists by handling routine tasks, freeing them up to focus on higher-level care,” Shari B. Kaplan, an integrative mental health clinician at Cannectd Wellness, told PYMNTS. “AI-driven data analytics could yield valuable population health insights to inform care delivery, treatment compliance and optimize outcomes.”

Benefits of AI Mental Healthcare

Supporters argue that AI mental health apps enhance access to care, making support available anytime, anywhere. They see these tools as pivotal in breaking down barriers to traditional therapy, such as cost, location and availability.

“People need support right here, right now — during the height of a distressing moment and its immediate aftermath, when individuals are most vulnerable and lost, regardless of whether it’s midnight or right after receiving bad news,” Jenny Chen, the chief scientist at gonna be ok, an AI-powered mental health app told PYMNTS.

“Making a 45-minute appointment with a therapist for next Tuesday at 2 p.m. won’t help much. AI mental health can provide the “first aid” people need on the spot, stopping the “bleeding” of emotional distress and preventing the worst-case scenarios where individuals feel extremely hopeless and helpless.”

Advocates also highlight that AI apps can provide patients anonymity and a nonjudgmental environment.

“Unveiling our shame is essential for the healing process, yet it’s extremely difficult for individuals when they face a real person — a therapist who knows our name, age, address, employer, etc.,” Chen said. “On the other hand, AI-powered mental health support provides an unparalleled level of anonymity; none of our personal identification needs to be disclosed.”

Most experts say that AI will likely augment rather than replace human therapists. Paul Losoff, the founder of Bedrock Psychology Group, said that AI can help many high-functioning people who need an “ear” or “fresh set of eyes” regarding a struggle. 

“However, I am concerned about people with moderate to severe mental health disorders such that their perception and interpretations of the world around them tend to be disoriented and skewed,” he added. “People with cognitive disorders (psychosis, personality disorders, bipolar, severely depressed/anxious, etc.) may not have the reality testing and skills to question an AI’s responses.”

Research shows that the most crucial ingredient in therapy is the patient-therapist relationship, Losoff pointed out.

“I’m not certain AI can 100% replicate this,” he added. “I believe that AI will eventually be able to replicate a real therapists responses with a high degree of ‘realness’ such that the patient will feel like they are talking to a real person. It will force us to consider what the ‘human’ element is.”