AI, Mental Health, and COVID-19

June 2, 2020

It is widely anticipated that one of the enduring impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a drastic rise in mental health cases. Prior to COVID-19, the demand for mental health care far exceeded the supply of mental health professionals. The almost certain rise in demand will necessitate more inventive ways to deliver care, including the use of technology. Two projects from the Institute for Media Innovation, a hub for research and design in the Moody College of Communication, directly engage this call to action.

In my position as the director of the Institute for Media Innovation, I have been interested in the use of technology and artificial intelligence to reinvent mental health care. The interest developed as a result of research that I have been doing over the years related to the innovative ways young people use the internet. In my work, I have observed how young people use the internet to learn new things, expand their social networks, consume news and information, and share their stories. In short, technology has become a source of agency for many young people.

In recent years I have also noticed young people using social media to cultivate pathways to health and wellness. It is not uncommon to see conversations and communities related to mental health on social media. These trends, I believe, offer insight into the future of mental health.

First, a growing contingency of young people is using social media to build communities that offer support — a key component in any effort to improve mental health conditions. Second, the use of social media to acknowledge and talk about mental health helps young people develop a vocabulary that improves their ability to better understand the illness. And finally, the swirl of social media content and conversations help reduce the stigma associated with mental health.

The global pandemic is teaching us many things, and that includes the fact that the delivery of vital health services will require new models and modes of care.

The Institute for Media Innovation is involved in two projects that use advances in technology to prototype the future of mental health care. The first project, a digital platform for mental health, has been greatly informed by my engagement with the Good Systems grand challenge. And the second project, a chatbot for people at risk for postpartum depression, is now part of the larger Good Systems grand challenge as well.

For the first project, my team has designed a digital platform that enhances the ability of mental health care professionals to connect and communicate with their patients. The platform, at its core, is designed to facilitate multiple forms of social support. Research consistently shows that social support systems are a critical feature in the maintenance of good health — mental and physical. Furthermore, our team believes that artificial intelligence can help address everything from misinformation to better understanding the sentiments, behaviors, and interests of our users.

Our second Good Systems project involves designing a chatbot that can assist individuals dealing with postpartum depression. We know that people who experience postpartum depression, typically women, may struggle with acknowledging their condition. In some cases, for example, they may feel guilty about their depression, which severely limits the likelihood that they’ll reach out for support. One theory that we may consider testing is if a chatbot makes it more likely that people with postpartum depression will look for support. Previous research suggests that technologies that allow individuals to maintain anonymity may increase the likelihood of them divulging an illness or identifying and acknowledging symptoms — important first steps.

Both projects think about the power of artificial intelligence as a source of support and agency for populations who have historically been marginalized when it comes to accessing mental health related resources. Young people and people of color are much less likely than their older counterparts or whites to have access to mental health care. Youth and people of color are oftentimes early and inventive adopters of media technologies. As a result, they may be more open to exploring how digital platforms can support their health and well-being. These projects, moreover, reflect the reality that for the next generation of providers and seekers of mental health care services, the adoption of technology will play a prominent role.

But key questions emerge. How can these systems be built in ways that address the disparities in access to mental health care? What are the ethical considerations in delivering mental health care through digital platforms? How do we balance the need to democratize access to care while delivering services in ways that respect privacy, contain the flow of misinformation, and respond to emergency situations like self-harm? Our projects represent an effort to design interventions that allow us to test the capacity of “good systems” to serve the underserved and maintain their security, dignity, and well-being.

We look forward to sharing the results of our research and development in future posts.

About S. Craig Watkins

S. Craig Watkins, Ph.D., is a journalism professor at The University of Texas at Austin. An internationally recognized expert in media, Watkins is the author of five books exploring young people’s engagement with media and technology. His two most recent books — The Digital Edge and Don’t Knock the Hustle — result from his work with the Connected Learning Research Network, a research collaborative funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Grand Challenge:
Good Systems