by Trinh Duong
When Teresa Nguyen was asked about the barriers that prevent someone from finding adequate mental health resources, Program Leader at Mental Health AmericaHe replied, “What is not an obstacle?” For someone with mental health issues, these barriers can range from shame to access to affordability for solutions.
Before she was an advocate for affordable mental health resources, Nguyen was someone she needed for herself. She suffered from depression when she was younger, but could not find resources to help her figure out what was “normal”. Without answers, she said she felt ashamed and found it easier to hide her problems than to talk to someone about them.
As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrant parents, she did not want to burden her family with her own psychological struggles. She fell in love with her best friend and eventually the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, but a cure or solution was hard to find.
Discover Mental Health America
In 2005, Teresa began her career as a rehabilitation specialist with Mental Health America in Orange County, California. Now, Nguyen has more than 15 years of experience in mental health and works for Mental Health America (MHA), a nonprofit organization that serves people with mental illness and promotes general mental health. MHA’s work is driven by its commitment to promoting mental health as an essential part of overall well-being.
“I loved the fighting spirit of the organization,” Nguyen said. “The people I spoke to on MHA spoke about the importance of self-determination, and that my voice is the most important voice on this journey.”
At MHA, Theresa has started an online screening program, where site visitors can take a mental health test to collect information and find resources for next steps. The screening program has grown from a few thousand tests per week to 1.5 million tests in 2020 and 5 million tests in 2021.
Text messaging platform
His latest project is an AI-powered adaptive text messaging platform for mental health care with Northwestern University and the University of Toronto. Of the 89% of people who tested positive for major depression through an online MHA survey last year, 79% did not want to undergo psychotherapy or use medication. It is these disturbing statistics that drive the team behind the AI-powered texting software. The program seeks to provide personalized support with few barriers to entry, so that anyone can get help at their comfort level.
In today’s world, even those who seek help can often face obstacles due to costs and access to treatment. Positions for mental health professionals can be poor, and not everyone has the technological ability to seek help. With the text messaging system, users do not need to interact instantly with another person and can explore different ways of dealing with their mental health conditions without worrying about costs or how to find help.
“It’s a moment, you just have to write. If you don’t like it, you can leave. If you like it, you stay involved, and the cost is low. You don’t have to search through the healthcare system or health insurance for immediate support,” explains Newgene.
Machine learning help
With current research showing that most users do not use mental health apps for periods longer than two weeks, the texting platform offers a more promising alternative. It works by providing text messages throughout the day, giving the user the opportunity to interact whenever they are ready. With SMS, there is no need for data or internet access to interact with the AI bot. After registering on the MHA website, a text chat begins and the user answers questions. From there, the platform uses machine learning to search for specific sharing interests and learn more about user activities, such as topics of interest and the best format for information. Users can also provide optional information about demographics, experiences, and interests to help customize the bot. Streams of mental illness can be very unpredictable. Plotting service hours around these extreme fluctuations is something Nguyen hopes to solve with the tool.
“I might not open an app or call my friend, but if I’m lying in bed in the middle of the night and say to the platform, ‘Hey, I love texting at 10pm,’ I’ll text you by the time I know I’ll probably need this. It’s the kind of experience I can plan for when I’m fine, but when I’m not feeling well, it’s going to happen because I have to.”
Teresa hopes the robot can reduce the feelings of judgment and guilt that often come with the decision to seek help, feelings she feared as a child. She adds that the rise of digital technology is particularly important in providing resources for young people and teens who have to deal with additional questions about what should seem normal.
Building a successful community
The duration of untreated illness and psychosis sometimes spans years. Nguyen hopes the platform can bridge the gap between realizing the need for care and actually looking for it.
“The impact this texting software can have on the general public is immeasurable,” says an anonymous user of the program. “I know I will benefit from it and I am sure thousands of other people will benefit too. A lot of adults and teens have mental health issues because frankly the world is a very difficult place and anything that is well thought out and proven to be beneficial, like this texting software, will definitely help people.”
The decision to seek help can be daunting. Finding a professional you can relate to can be challenging.
“It’s hard to find a professional, isn’t it? Especially someone you trust,” Theresa says.
The constant presence of a texting platform is reassuring, especially at a time when healthcare professionals are facing burnout due to the increasing demands on their service. “The great thing about an asynchronous bot is that it never runs out,” explains Nguyen. The team experiments with user-provided advice through crowdsourcing and words of affirmation to give the platform a sense of community.
Respondents who tested the platform explained that the tool helped them feel validated and try new techniques and activities for their mental health, as well as find common ground with others. “There are a lot of people with different values and ideas about solutions that we can find. And I really enjoyed seeing that there are so many people out there. We are all different, but at the same time, we all have similar problems. It really helps,” one anonymous user explained.
Microsoft provided financial and technical support to start the project through a grant with the program AI for accessibility. The next step of the research is to roll out the platform to a group of 10,000 users. The ultimate goal of the team is to offer the texting platform to the millions of annual users who visit the MHA screening site.
Nguyen has come a long way since he was a kid as he was silently struggling with his mental health. As an adult, she learns about the diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness in her family that just wasn’t discussed. Her mental health journey continues, but she feels better prepared for care and gratitude for the accessible technology that allows her to ask questions and learn more about herself. She wants people to easily seek help at their own pace and believes that the platform will give users the knowledge, skills, and confidence to stand up for themselves and their voice as a patient.
“What I think is great is that we empower people and allow them to seek help at a level that works for them,” Nguyen explains.
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Tags: mental health