The worldwide epidemic of mental illness is putting great strain on health systems and societies. Prevalence of mental health issues is forcing some researchers to seek alternative ways to treat mental health conditions; they’re turning to technology such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a way to offer help to those suffering from anxiety or depression.
The boom in self-help apps on smartphones and tablets hasn’t provided much help. “Most existing apps stop with the data – it’s not part of a program of interventions you can take,” said Professor Corina Sas, a researcher in human-computer interaction at Lancaster University in the UK. “At present, data capture is very disconnected with the high-level-type thinking we make in terms of emotional processing.”
To address this, Prof. Sas and her colleagues have started AffecTech project in order to create a personalized, low-cost toolkit using a range of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality for individuals with ‘affective’ health conditions like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
“My vision is that we build a toolbox of interfaces involving different types of technology,” said Prof. Sas. For example, AI could be used to interpret a user’s emotional state and then the system would offer relevant therapy to help the person manage their condition.
She suggests using wearable cameras which allows the user to record their events taking place when they’re in a particular emotional state. Afterwards, they could watch the video and try to understand what triggered their positive or negative emotions. The team has also tested prototypes of wrist-worn, color-changing biosensors that help users track their own emotions.
The AffecTech project, which includes the Leeds NHS Trust as a member, is also seeking to test the technologies with users recruited through NHS, charities and other communities.
However, although technology can be a useful tool to help patients manage their emotional state, it often lacks empathy which can only be achieved through personal contact with health professionals. To address this, some researchers are turning to AI to provide patients help via chat-based apps.
The Shim project is one such project run by a team of psychologists, researchers, writers, engineers and designers. The system spots language patterns and keywords using AI, and then creates personalized text-based conversations that help the user to change their negative mental perspective to a positive one.
A pilot study published last year showed that participants who used the app to talk to Shim for 2 weeks reported a higher level of emotional wellbeing and lower stress levels compared to a control group. The project is now planning a larger study, which may involve collaborating with several US universities.
“In the future, we will see a world where you pick up your phone when you are feeling down to get emotional support in the moment,” said Dr Kien Hoa Ly, a researcher in behavioral sciences and learning at Linköping University in Sweden and chief executive of the project’s company Hello Shim.