AI vs Tele Mental Health Services: Digging deeper into buzzwords

FIT explains the difference between AI and telehealth services.


SUITED explains what is the difference between AI and mental health telehealth services.


(Photo: iStock/Altered by SUITED)


FIT explains what is the difference between AI and mental health telehealth services.

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There is a lot of chatter on the internet about AI-guided mental health care and telematic mental health care services. With it also comes apprehension.

Can artificial intelligence or digital tools replace therapists? Are there limits to how digital tools can be used when it comes to mental health? Are there privacy issues involved? Can these digital tools be empathetic?

While all these questions are important, let’s start with the basics by distinguishing between the two digital health tools.

SUITED explains the difference between AI and mental health telehealth services and how to decide which might be more suitable for you.

AI Vs Tele Mental Health Services: What Are They Exactly?

AI-powered mental health care is an umbrella term. Within this broader term, there are many different aspects of how AI tools can be used to provide support.

First, there are generative artificial intelligence tools like chatbots that have been trained to talk to people and guide them through emotional well-being or therapy, whatever algorithm analyzes their need.

But AI tools are also used to develop algorithms, perform diagnoses, assessments, predictive models, screening tests for problems like anxiety and depression, etc.

They can also be used for user profiling via trackers and sensors, where they can identify symptoms and prescriptions for customers and use that knowledge to better guide other users.

“AI tools help you with precision engagement and precision treatment,” Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist at WYSA, a mental health app, tells FIT.

On the other hand, psychiatric teleassistance predominantly involves seeking therapy or emotional support from a mental health professional through a telephone medium.

But it can also involve telepsychiatry, where a medical professional diagnoses and prescribes medication for a person on call.

Unlike artificial intelligence, where there is no human intervention, tele-mental health care includes an element of training. For example, NIMHANS runs a program where they train people to identify signs of addiction and how to provide them with basic on-call care.

Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist, WYSA

Pros and cons: to each their own

While both of these digital forms of mental health services are relatively new, there are some things that work in their favor and against them as well.

What AI surpasses any other format of mental health care is that AI tools are available 24/7. If you need support at 1pm or 4am, AI chatbots are accessible to let off steam and take the load off your mind.

However, AI can only select you for certain tests and not diagnose you. You should also have your test results confirmed or reviewed by a doctor.

“AI tools need doctors to review it or provide answers and datasets that are empathetic, so they can give you better advice and not trigger you.”

Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at WYSA

Dr. Trideep Choudhury, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital in Vasant Kunj, on the other hand, recounts SUITED,

For mental health telehealth, the professional on the other end of the call can see the nuances, changes in the other person’s voice, tone, language and can work out the diagnosis and treatment protocols accordingly.

He adds that in traditional configurations, when the practitioner meets the patient, he can tell a lot about him from his body language, behavior, etc. This can be replicated to some degree in mental health telehealth services as well, but not with AI tools at this point.

Dr Choudhury believes AI-driven mental health services are still in their nascent stages and need to be explored further.

For now, he says AI can help design cognitive exercises, evaluate programs and tests, and help in more managerial ways.

More research is needed. More data needs to be collected when it comes to AI.

Dr Trideep Choudhury, Consultant Psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital


Accessibility and convenience

Despite these many pros and cons, what works in favor of these digital tools is that they increase accessibility and make mental health services more affordable for people.

While a traditional therapy session might cost you anywhere from Rs 500-2,000 in urban India, most chatbots/apps are free and phone sessions cost much less.

Dr. Samir Parikh, director of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, Delhi, told I quint The big story podcast, earlier this month, “Digital tools reduce stigma as people may not be OK with going to a doctor, but talking to a bot or on the phone is easier.

Not only that, digital tools also help bridge the accessibility gap as virtually anyone with a phone can use them.

Sitting in NCR, the sheer number of people I see in rural areas through telematic mental health services is a significant evolution for me. People from distant areas cannot come to the city every time they need to see a psychiatrist, these tools help in that way.

Dr Samir Parikh, Director of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare

Where digital tools just don’t cut it

What also works for these tools is that they pass the baton to expert professionals when the customer’s needs exceed what they can offer.

For example, Joshi says that, at WYSA, when it comes to sensitive issues like suicide, rape, trauma, or self-harm, they haven’t designed a generative AI tool. He says, “We don’t know what the bot will say in such scenarios. So, we’ve created a different path for that.”

There’s also a realization that AI tools aren’t for everyone, Joshi explains, especially for people who may be hallucinating, have delusions, who aren’t aware of their own actions or tendencies, or who may be suicidal.

Joshi adds, “All crisis helplines are telephone-based because talking helps more than texting and also requires less bandwidth. Voice tones and signs of distress are also easier to identify when calling.”

This too seems necessary as the few guidelines when it comes to digitally led mental health care are vague at the moment.

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