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Mental Health and Data Science

According to WHO, Good mental health is related to mental and psychological well-being. It’s about how you feel, think and behave.  According to the National Mental Health Survey of India (2015-16), nearly 150 million Indians need mental health care services and less than 30 million are seeking care. A report by National Institute Of Mental Health & Neurosciences released in April 2020 about Mental Health in the times of COVID-19 clearly states that “Mental health issues following the COVID-19 pandemic stem from ‘normal’ people being exposed to ‘extraordinary situations’.  

Fear of getting infected and psychological distress of getting separated from family affects the mental health of people upto a certain point. Generally these issues are mild and temporary but for some people this may lead to serious mental illness.

Mental health care is way back in every aspect, whether we talk about awareness , diagnosis or treatment. We only have 4,000 mental health professionals available for a population of 1.3666 Billion. As India is moving forward to provide the best mental health care, data scientists have come forward to understand the value data science can provide in the field of mental health.

Wondering how data science can intrude the mental healthcare services? Well, since machine learning and artificial intelligence have taken up almost all aspects, the realm of mental health is not left unexplored. Computational psychiatry has been a major breakthrough with its data driven and theoretical approaches.

Using data models and machine learning approaches, diagnosis of mental health, estimation of probable treatments and the treatment outcomes can be analysed.

Success of data models depends on data availability. Data needs to be integrated from different sources because there’s no single reliable source of data available for mental illness. With the help of mental health professionals, data can be collected from patients’ history, pharmacy, internet searches. 

One of the prominent sources of data is social media because people usually share their feelings and emotions on social media through their posts. There are a number of different communities on Reddit for mental health, such as r/depression_health, r/Anxiety and many more. People talk about their mental health in these communities and are way more comfortable talking there because of anonymity. Whatever people post becomes the source of data. Once the data is collected, pre processing of data is done and classification models are made.

Another source of data for mental health analysis can be Twitter. By picking up tweets with hashtags like #mentalhealth, #anxiety data can be collected and analysed. 

Classification models once made makes the identification of a person’s mental health state much easier. Once the illness is identified, we can look for personalized treatment for the patient.

Mental illness is not only about depression or suicidal thoughts or panic attacks. Overthinking, sleeping disorders, eating disorders are the very beginning of mental illness and are disregarded always. Data scientists have come forward with the ideas of AI-driven chatbots which are very helpful in these initial stages of mental illness and also have affected the rate of suicide upto a certain extent. 

The question still arises whether we can expertise these chatbots to become an effective therapist by programming and algorithms, when humans spend their whole life to master these skills? Chatbots can’t replace what a human therapist can do but they have contributed a lot in mental health care. Issues like overthinking and sleep disorders or stress of getting infected from coronavirus can be solved upto certain extent using these chat bots. Algorithms used in them give a realistic touch. Founders of one of these chatbots claimed that during the month of March and April-2020, when the pandemic was in its initial stages, the number of downloads increased like never before. This shows how much people are affected and how they are relying on these AI driven chatbots. One of the major points of attraction of these chatbots is that it cuts the insecurity of getting judged by the other person.

To solve any problem, awareness in society is very important. Data scientists along with mental health professionals can help in decreasing the stigma related to mental illness in society. We need to understand the fact that mental health is as important as our physical health and seeking help is not something to be afraid of.

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