Technology is set to transform mental health treatment.

Can artificial intelligence (AI) provide accurate mental health diagnoses? Can virtual reality (VR) deliver effective anxiety treatments? Can cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) work when it’s offered over the Internet?

Accumulating evidence suggests the answer is yes, according to Charmaine Alexander, senior advisor in disability management at Desjardins Insurance, who presented some of the data at a national webinar hosted by the Canadian Pension & Benefits Institute on January 27, 2021.

The theme was “Mental health: from technological innovation to human progress” and the message was clear: technology, used appropriately within benefits plans, can encourage more people to use the services available to them and result in a mentally healthier workforce.

Improving access – something technology is especially good at – is critical, given research Alexander cited that found 60% of employees don’t use the mental health resources their employer offers. And it is particularly important right now, with the pandemic increasing the percentage of people reporting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a normal range of 5% to 10% to 26% in another study she referenced.

For benefits plans, getting people the help they need is essential as well, with mental health representing about 30% of long-term disability (LTD) claims but about 70% of LTD costs – and those numbers, as Alexander pointed out, are from two years ago, before the arrival of COVID-19.

Robot psychiatrists?

In this challenging environment, AI is proving its worth analyzing spoken language, body language and mobile data to make psychiatric diagnoses, Alexander said, though it requires a tremendous amount of data from sessions with therapists to build a working model.

Still, Alexander said, “The idea of a robot psychiatrist might seem really way out there for you, but we are very close […] A study of 225 people […] found that the artificial intelligence was actually able to make a correct diagnosis as accurately as a real-life clinician.”

The goal, of course, is not to replace human psychiatrists, but the hope is that AI could provide an initial assessment months before an appointment with a psychiatrist is available. Its diagnosis and recommendations could then be handed off to the psychiatrist, who would take treatment from there.

Meanwhile, VR is already being used to provide exposure therapy to patients with anxiety and phobias, enabling patients to experience a situation that makes them nervous in a safe environment such as a doctor’s office. And Internet CBT is also proving to be effective for treating anxiety, resulting in 80% of one study’s respondents reporting that they were able to work more efficiently after treatment, Alexander said.

Breaking the ice.

Desjardins is embedding AI into its employee assistance programs (EAPs). Its AI tool, Epsylio, serves as an initial point of contact, asking questions to clarify a plan member’s need, make suggestions and provide referrals as necessary.

“It’s there to break that ice, to make people more comfortable with starting to deal with their mental well-being, the mental stressors that they’re feeling,” Alexander said. “This technology is an additional tool for connecting with those employees who may never have asked for help – that 60%.”

Alexander emphasized that, beyond the flashy technology, there is another source of mental health innovation benefits plans can harness: our hearts and minds.

“Much of what makes up our psychological well-being comes from our interactions with people, so we often need to ask ourselves as employers, as colleagues, as people in society how we can change the way we interact with our employees, our colleagues, so that these interactions can help prevent mental illness [and] contribute to someone’s mental well-being,” she said.

She suggested a model for a social contract between employers and employees that puts mental health at the centre, surrounded by a culture of overall health in a safe and inclusive environment, with sound management practices and appropriate training. One way to innovate, she added, can be by addressing mental, physical and financial health to create an all-round healthier workplace.

“We know from studies that companies that really put mental health and well-being [among] their core values do also enjoy improved performance and they are highly rated,” Alexander said, adding, “Mental health programs show a positive return on investment after three years.”

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