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An Intelligent Approach to Mental Health

The costs of mental illness – in the form of disability, loss of productivity, and premature death – are often underestimated. Addressing the global mental-health challenge requires not just building up traditional mental health-care capacities, but also taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence.

BOSTON – A few years ago, toward the end of his life, my father battled severe depression. As a physician and professor, he did not lack access to mental-health care. But he had grown up in a society that stigmatized mental illness, and he was unwilling to seek professional help. As a son, it was devastating to watch my father suffer. As a public-health researcher, I gained a new awareness of the myriad systemic failures in the provision of care.

Scientists from around the world are now seeking to address the problems with “Countdown Global Mental Health 2030,” a “multi-stakeholder monitoring and accountability collaboration for mental health” launched in February. But, while this initiative is a positive step, it neglects a key element of an effective solution: advanced technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI).

Globally, the supply of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists is nowhere near sufficient. For example, in Zimbabwe, there are just 25 mental-health professionals for a population of over 16 million. While the country has produced some innovative and useful community-led initiatives, such as the “Friendship Bench,” their scalability is limited.

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