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The Depression Cure: From Magic to Artificial Intelligence

5 Octubre - 2021

Ana Freire, Director of the Technology Area

Melancholy. This was the name of depression until the beginning of the 18th century. This melancholy was usually cured with rituals close to magic or more effective therapies such as walking or listening to music. Currently, psychotherapy or pharmacological treatments are the usual ways to cushion the “disease of the 21st century”.

According to the World Health Organization , depression is already the leading global cause of disability. Although it affects about 300 million people, more than half of those affected worldwide (and more than 90% in some countries) do not receive treatment.

Depression affects nearly 300 million people and half of these, more than 90% in some countries, do not receive treatment

A recent study conducted on more than 1,000 Australian employees found that companies that do not encourage caring of mental health among its workers, expose them to a risk of depression three times greater, which can trigger an increase in the number of sick leave, negatively affecting the success of the company. Along these lines, the Labor Inspection announced last spring that will sanction those companies that do not evaluate the psychosocial risk factors of their workers, understanding these factors as "working conditions that, due to a deficient configuration or an inadequate design, are likely to negatively affect the health and well-being of the worker" . Measures like this can undoubtedly contribute to improving the mental health of citizens, but perhaps we should also direct efforts to another group not usually associated with depression: adolescents.

Generation Z, the successor to millennials , includes individuals born in the late 90s and early 2000s. It is characterized by an excellent command of technology and digital devices, greater social activism and worse mental health. A great contradiction affects this cohort, because despite being the most connected generation in history, it is commonly called “the saddest generation in history”. Perhaps what seems to be the cause of the problem may also be the solution.

What if technology, and in particular Artificial Intelligence, helped treat depression?

Artificial Intelligence is characterized by implementing intelligent human behavior in a machine. Some recent studies suggest that this technology will help reduce costs of mental health care systems while allowing greater access to their services, meeting the high demand for psychological care of the population. How? Through chatbots . A chatbot or conversational agent is a computer program with which a human can have a more or less complex written conversation. We see simple chatbots that offer virtual assistance in online stores or even in public administration web portals, which give automatic support to users and thus free up human resources. However, work is already underway on more complex therapeutic chatbots that integrate artificial intelligence to perform more ambitious tasks such as diagnosing or treating mental illness. Woebot is an example of this. It is an application designed to, through a smartphone (the one we all have today), track mood and offer psychological education and support. In an experiment with a sample of 70 young people between 18 and 28 years old, statistically significant reductions in the depressive symptoms were achieved after two weeks of use.

Technology can be the great driver of the democratization of psychological care among the younger generations, who put virtual communication before personal communication.

It will be necessary to perfect these intelligent systems so that they can be 100% reliable, and for Artificial Intelligence to be the agent of change that allows avoiding a mental health pandemic. However, taking into account the great advance that technology has experienced in recent years, it would not be strange for it to overtake us on the right to offer a solution to a serious problem that, despite its name change and the fact that three centuries have passed, is still considered melancholy.

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