Nationwide agencies and health care experts are relying on technology to provide an extra layer of mental health support to combat an unprecedented mental health crisis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 57 million American adults suffer from mental illness.
“Mental health is a growing concern across our system and we're seeing increasing rates in every sector of health care,” Dr. Tina-Hernandez Boussard, associate dean of research and professor of medicine at Stanford University, told GovCIO Media & Research.
Dr. Boussard evaluates artificial intelligence technology for health care outcomes and is currently working to develop and analyze data to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and patient experience for those suffering with mental illnesses.
“A lot of patients go through mental health issues, and there is a big gap in the way we can identify these patients,” Boussard said, adding that patients facing cancer tend to struggle the most.
According to Boussard, patients suffering from life-threatening diseases such as cancer tend to deprioritize their mental health.
“We have developed an AI model to identify patients who communicate with their clinicians [their] concerns about mental health, so anxiety, depression, etc, during their treatment of cancer,” Boussard said.
But the technology doesn't account for a lack of access to or communication with health care providers.
"We're just looking at patients who actually have access to communicate with a provider, so I think there's a greater need to think about how do we reach out and make these tools and reduce these barriers to the general population,” Boussard added.
Boussard said technology highlights the haves and the have nots in health care, especially around mental health. “The patients who have the resources, who have the skills to communicate, who have the computer literacy, have access to so many more tools and resources," she said.
AI bias is still a threat, especially within uninsured populations. “It could be related to cultural differences; it can be related to language barriers and so, these algorithms don't perform equally across all populations,” Boussard said.
At the agency level, Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is also taking advantage of the opportunities technology has created.
“AI technologies provide us great insight of user behavior and needs and assist SAMHSA to render appropriate content and offer new services in the mental health awareness and substance abuse areas,” Ashu Goel, SAMHSA’s CIO, told GovCIO Media & Research in an interview.
Currently, SAMHSA is working to implement chatbot, a virtual assistant. “This is intended to help people find answers to their needs on requests pertaining to mental health, and substance use addiction crises. It will continually learn and improve the way it provides guidance to people in English and Spanish,” Goel said.
More recently, a joint effort between SAMHSA and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) launched FindSupport.gov, a new website aiming to provide the public with tools and guidance to expand mental health resources.
“For the first time, the public will have access to easy-to-understand, publicly managed information about how to seek out and access supports and services for mental health and substance use. I encourage everyone to visit findsupport.gov today whether you’re seeking information for yourselves or those close to you,” Goel said.
Ensuring those with mental health issues have access to resources to address the health and addiction crises is central to SAMHSA's mission, but the technological tools are not a replacement to meeting with a provider or an in-person experience.
“The purpose of this site is information only. It is not intended to replace professional or in-person resources for mental health diagnosis or advice of any kind,” Goel added.
Boussard also believes AI solutions can’t be autonomous, “I really like when there's a human in the loop or the clinician in the loop,” she said, adding that technology is outpacing mental health providers.
“Hundreds, if not thousands of tools are available for mental health but identifying the right tool for the right patient or the right tool for the right population, identifying how we disseminate that across the broader communities is more of a blockage than the technology itself,” she said.