Virtual Therapists Will Listen, Counsel, and Treat Mental Health with AI

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
May 18, 2020

Discussing mental health concerns with a therapist is smart. Thanks to AI, virtual therapists who can treat mental health issues quickly may soon be a reality.

Whether it's depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another emotional or behavioral problem, the odds are, you or someone you know has been impacted by a mental health issue. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes about 47 million American adults have a mental illness, which the NIMH defines as any mental, emotional, or behavior disorder, ranging from mild-to-severely life impairing.

Unfortunately, finding professional psychiatric or psychological help that is quick, convenient, and affordable can be difficult. But a new way to treat mental health problems is on the horizon, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

Virtual therapists will listen, counsel, and treat patients with AI tools. They will even be able to diagnosis and get urgent help for patients when the virtual therapist picks up signs of possible self-harm or a risk of suicide.


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How a virtual therapist will understand what’s wrong

If this sounds like a sci-fi scenario about the distant future, it’s not. In fact, mental health is one of the next frontiers for AI. Researchers are working on ways to develop virtual therapists — high tech avatars who will communicate with patients, counseling and interacting via smartphones and computer screens.

It’s not such a foreign idea when you consider countless people regularly ask Siri, Alexa, or some other virtual assistant to perform a task or answer a question. This is made possible by voice recognition and machine-learning, which allows the virtual helper to understand what a person is communicating and wants done.

Of course, virtual therapists will do much more. They’ll listen, counsel, and treat mental health with AI, using far more complex and detailed information than common virtual assistants.

Algorithms, created by “big data” collected via machine-learning, will allow virtual therapists to derive information from not only the words you say but also how you say them, your facial expressions, and more. This is a process known as “deep learning” — a subset of machine-learning in AI that creates networks capable of learning, unsupervised, from various data. And virtual therapists, when perfected, should be able to draw conclusions from what they learn communicating with a patient to diagnose and help treat.

Deep learning is already changing the nature of healthcare, alerting doctors, through AI-assisted imaging and other tests, to patterns and clues to diseases and other potential problems in the body, which human physicians would likely not discover on their own.

Now, deep learning is moving into the mental health arena, and it has the potential to allow AI-driven avatars to understand how mental health woes are specifically affecting people, according to cardiologist and scientist Eric Topol, MD, executive vice president of Scripps Research and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute.

It turns out many things people do naturally, like talk (and the patterns of speech they use over time) and facial expressions, can provide information about a person’s state of mind and allow virtual therapists to independently figure out what a person’s mental state is.

“The intonation of all the aspects of our speech, relative to our baseline, can tell if a person is depressed, better than they know themselves, subjectively. Then you add on things like your breathing pattern,” Topol explained in a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “If you sigh a lot, that’s a sign you are depressed, and you may not even be in touch you are sighing. How you touch the keys on your smartphone or laptop, your heart rate, vital signs, facial expression — there are so many ways we can objectively determine and track continuously the state of mind now.”

There’s more research needed to see how many of these signs of a person’s mental health are needed by a virtual therapist to make a specific diagnosis, but scientists are working on it.

A virtual therapist may have advantages for humans

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, PhD, director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, and his research team are developing virtual humans to help real humans with mental health issues.

Rizzo insists he and his colleagues are not creating virtual therapists to replace human psychiatrists and psychologists but to help alleviate the shortage of mental health providers, with avatars who are never tired, always available, and can build a huge data base on individual patients’ concerns, symptoms, and needs. The avatars can also be an advantage to people who hesitate to reach out to doctors for help — instead, they can privately consult with a virtual therapist and see if it helps.

Simply put, a virtual therapist will potentially be able to figure out, quickly and accurately, a diagnosis and even pinpoint the exact drug or drug class best for a person’s situation and body. Of course, this won’t eliminate human psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists who would review the information provided by virtual therapists.

The virtual therapy should make mental health care faster and less expensive. And it should save human doctors and counselors valuable time assessing possible diagnoses, finding appropriate medication, and other possible treatments for a patient.

Getting mental health help and care through a virtual therapist may seem like a cold, impersonal approach. But proponents of the idea, like Topol, author of “Deep Medicine; How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again,” believe embracing AI technologies in new ways can make healthcare more human, not less.

“People are more comfortable sharing their innermost secrets with an avatar than with a human being,” Topol said.

And that should help with the acceptance of virtual therapists who will listen, counsel, and treat mental health with AI, which Topol sees as crucial to help countless people who need therapy.

“We have a grossly insufficient amount of (human) professionals to help people with depression and other mental health issues. It’s critical we get this straightened out,” Topol emphasized.


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May 18, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O'Dell, RN