How is AI helping mental health care in Canada?
When Entisar Bukair needs a moment of self-care and distraction, he opens the Mind-Easy app on his phone.
There London, Ont. the lawyer is greeted by his friendly, artificial intelligence (AI) avatar, who guides him through breathing exercises and listens as he recounts his busy day.
An avatar named Olivia speaks Bukair in Arabic, a feature of the app that allows users to choose different languages for interaction.
Last November, a friend recommended the app to Bukair because she was looking for a simple and regular way to take care of her mental health. As a practicing lawyer, she said being mindful of her own well-being is important when taking on the feelings of others.
“It feels super-personalized, and the avatars that pop up look like me,” Bukair told CTVNews.ca.
Boucaire said she had tried individual therapy in the past, but felt it was difficult for her therapist to connect with her.
“They don’t consider the fact that I’m a veiled Muslim woman because the person offering me doesn’t give the same weight and importance that I would to these different intersections and identities that I hold so dear to my heart.” Bukair said:
Artificial intelligence has been used in healthcare for years, but recently it has been increasingly incorporated into mental health care. Many telehealth companies use artificial intelligence to provide personalized healthcare to patients, and most use text as their primary form of communication. Companies like Mindstrong, Headspace, and Woebot Health provide private chat rooms to chat with AI-powered “therapists.”
It The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how fragile the healthcare system is, especially when professionals began to leave the field due to overload or stress. how mental health crises escalated, that side of the field became overwhelmedwhere experts believe AI can make inroads.
“Instead of thinking [AI as] by removing jobs, we can think of it more like population-based care that we’ve done in the past, where we average things out,” Carolyn McGregor, research director of health and wellness and AI at the Ontario University of Technology, told CTVNews. : .ca in the interview. We’re really trying to use technology now to create what’s called precision public health or precision health, where we’re really trying to tailor it to the individual.
In the case of Mind-Easy, the app aims to provide preventive mental health care while being culturally sensitive to diverse backgrounds. The tech startup was created by three University of Toronto graduates who saw gaps in Canada’s current health care system. Long wait times to see a mental health professional in Canada, lack of multilingual therapists or counselors, and professional burnout are three key gaps Mind-Easy’s founders set out to address.
“There is a huge shortage of therapists right now, not everywhere, but the reality is that not everyone can go to therapy, and there just isn’t enough human capital to solve the global mental health problem,” co-founder Alexandra Aswad. said: “So we need reliable machine solutions to optimize where human capital is actually used in therapy.”
The Mind-Easy app is free to download, but access to additional services will cost users about $12.99 per month or $102.99 for a year. By comparison, traditional therapy that is not covered by a provincial health plan can cost between $50 and $300 per session.
For Bukair, the app is easy to use and provides a sense of security knowing that the person he sees in the video call is not real.
Pictured is Entisar Bukair’s AI named Olivia. (Screenshot)
“I accept the fact that it looks like a robot at the end of the day,” he said. “And it’s going to be different for people, sure (but) I think the people who really gravitate to this app, like me, are people who want to use something to supplement the human interaction that we’re already getting in our in everyday life or through traditional mental health resources.”
Dalia Ahmed, a psychotherapist and co-founder of Mind-Easy, says the app is not meant to diagnose or provide traditional talk therapy to users, but instead focuses on preventative measures to boost mental health.
“Our mission is really to be able to create a space for proactive and preventative mental health because right now it’s super binary, you either have a diagnosis or you’re waiting for a crisis and an intervention,” she told CTVNews.ca in an interview. : .
HOW AI WORKS MIND EASY
Mind-Easy is a relatively new app with over 15,000 users in 17 different countries around the world. The founders say there are about 2,000 monthly active users.
Bukair, who was initially skeptical of the service, now visits the app at least twice a week to monitor his mental health.
Mind-Easy will send Bukair notifications reminding him to log in and do the exercise. Sometimes the prompt will start with how he’s feeling that day, and based on Bukair’s answers, the AI will give instructions.
Recently, Bukair told Olivia that he felt relaxed and excited for the workday ahead.
“(Olivia) gave me a few options to look like. what do you want to do with this calm? Do you want to understand what relaxation feels like? Want to practice relaxation? Bukair told.
From there, Bukair said, he can choose what to do. Sometimes it’s breathing exercises, sometimes it can be a prompt for a journal entry. In that case, Olivia suggested a two-minute video on relaxation.
“But say I want more resources, or say the video isn’t enough for me, you have the option to write (in chat) or talk more,” Bukair said.
Mind-Easy can be used like a counselor, allowing the person to ventilate and then reflect on the session. Using natural language and different dialects, AI can understand the human voice. The second part of AI used is avatars. each is unique to the person they serve.
ChatGPT, a type of open AI, raised concerns about whether the information provided to the user was factual. Text-based AI allows users to ask it a question and will respond in a variety of ways such as poems, short stories or essays. While this type of AI collects information from the Internet, Mind-Easy’s AI can only get information from one place.
“We’ve included a chatbot that works based on therapeutic interventions, research and clinical information that we’ve worked to collect, but also exists,” Mind-Easy co-founder Akanksha Shelat said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “We (then) break it down into language that is understandable for everyday use and also for the person we’re talking to.”
For Mind-Easy’s founders, connecting with human-like technology is important when talking about mental health.
“It’s not just random text on the screen or just a generic translation, it’s an avatar that talks to you and asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ “Hey, how are you?” Shelat said.
THE FUTURE OF AI IN MENTAL HEALTHCARE
AI has been used in healthcare in the past, but the look and type of technology has changed, McGregor said.
“One of the really important things when it comes to mental health is to understand what local resources are available to you, not only in your country, but also in your region,” McGregor said.
For example, using location data from a person’s phone and heart rate from a smartwatch, McGregor said it’s possible for AI to pull together specific mental health resources for a person and inform them of options when they need support.
“It’s a combination of developers working with people in the mental health field to understand how to make those connections and also make sure you have the right information about the area you’re in,” he said.
With the avatars Mind-Easy employs, McGregor says they’re the first layer of technology people see.
“We have to always remember these avatars, because you see them on the screen, there’s another piece of technology behind it that gives you the sentence it’s supposed to tell you,” he said.
Apps that can access a person’s data through wearable technology, such as watches or rings, can use AI to track indicators that a person’s mental state is changing and personalize the care needed, McGregor said. Human breathing is just one example of such indicators.
As artificial intelligence continues to develop, the level of intimacy with technology in healthcare will eventually become the norm, he said. For patients to receive a level of thorough and personalized care, McGregor says artificial intelligence is necessary.
“It’s just not practical for one doctor to look at one person in that much detail,” he said.
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