AI in psychiatry: detecting mental illness with artificial intelligence

AI in psychiatry: detecting mental illness with artificial intelligence
iStock-Jackie Niam

Advances in AI has allowed for computers to help doctors in diagnosing disease and help monitor patients’ vital signs from any location.

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder are working to apply machine learning artificial intelligence (AI) in psychiatry, with a speech-based mobile app that can categorise a patient’s mental health status as well as, or better than, a human can.

The university research paper has been published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, and lays out the promise and potential pitfalls of AI in psychiatry.

Peter Foltz, a research professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science and co-author of the paper, said: “We are not in any way trying to replace clinicians, but we do believe we can create tools that will allow them to better monitor their patients.”

Accessing mental health care

In Europe, the WHO estimated that 44.3 million people suffer with depression and 37.3 million suffer with anxiety.

Diagnosis of mental health disorders are based on an age-old method that can be subjective and unreliable, notes paper co-author Brita Elvevåg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Tromsø, Norway.

Elvevåg said: “Humans are not perfect. They can get distracted and sometimes miss out on subtle speech cues and warning signs.

“Unfortunately, there is no objective blood test for mental health.”

Elvevåg and Foltz teamed up to develop machine learning technology that is able to more precisely detect day-to-day changes in speech that hint at mental health decline.

For instance, sentences that don’t follow a logical pattern can be a critical symptom in schizophrenia. Shifts in tone or pace can hint at mania or depression, and memory loss can be a sign of both cognitive and mental health problems.

“Language is a critical pathway to detecting patient mental states,” says Foltz. “Using mobile devices and AI, we are able to track patients daily and monitor these subtle changes.”

AI in psychiatry

The new mobile app asks patients to answer a five to 10 minute series of questions by talking into their phone. Among various other tasks, they’re asked about their emotional state, asked to tell a short story, listen to a story and repeat it and given a series of touch-and-swipe motor skills tests.

The team developed an AI system that assesses the speech samples, compares them to previous samples by the same patient and the broader population, and then rates the patient’s mental state.

The team asked human clinicians to listen to and assess speech samples of 225 participants – half with severe psychiatric issues; half healthy volunteers – in rural Louisiana and Northern Norway. They then compared those results to those of the machine learning system.

If the app detected a worrisome change, it could notify the patient’s doctor to check in.

Foltz said: “We found that the computer’s AI models can be at least as accurate as clinicians.

“Patients often need to be monitored with frequent clinical interviews by trained professionals to avoid costly emergency care and unfortunate events, but there are simply not enough clinicians for that.”

In the paper, the researchers lay out a call for larger studies to prove efficacy and earn public trust before AI technology could be broadly brought into clinical practice for psychiatry.

The paper states: ‘The mystery around AI does not nurture trustworthiness, which is critical when applying medical technology.

‘Rather than looking for machine learning models to become the ultimate decision-maker in medicine, we should leverage the things that machines do well that are distinct from what humans do well.’


  1. The idea of AI transforming self-care has been exploited to a great extent. However, AI-powered tools can’t replace therapy, they can only serve as a helpful addition to check the symptoms, keep track of the mood etc.:
    For a mental health service, it’s more important to be credible and have practitioners onboard than integrating innovative technologies like AI.

  2. What we do in Denmark, is to assign the diagnosis to an under graduate. They ask the patient standard questions from a single page questionnaire. 15 minutes later you have a diagnosis. A psychiatrist will then create the prescription without having to meet with you in person. For the best healthcare system in the world, which we believe we have, you don’t need an AI. An app with a few questions is enough. The App can send a prescription to the pharmacy and you can start using anti-psychotics immediately, for example as sleeping pills. Tax payers money ensures this to be free to access for everyone. The side effects can of course include death, brain damage, disability and so forth, so it’s really up to yourself whether or not you undergo treatment. We also use social workers to diagnose people with mental illness. A psychiatrist is not necessary anymore. The Danish system has been perfected. Every level of the welfare system has become fit to diagnose anyone with any thing.
    Eventually I chose to change my lifestyle and believe systems instead because the side effects were too harsh. In a matter of a few weeks I was cured and haven’t had any symptoms or issues since.
    A doctor is not always your best choice when your health fails. The internet can sometimes be a much better choice.


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