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Mental health is a relevant topic now more than ever. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people is affected by a mental health condition at some point in their life.

Mental health disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. It’s one of the most stigmatized and hidden disabilities, and 75 percent of the people suffering do not seek the help they need. On average, mental health disability costs more than $1 trillion every year in lost productivity. 

With the current global COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has become an even greater focus for those dealing with isolation, job losses, financial stress, loss of loved ones, fear, or the psychological toll that comes with physical exhaustion from being an essential worker. Stay-at-home measures can also put people at risk of suffering violence and abuse. An increase in alcohol consumption is another area of concern for mental health experts. 

Children and the elderly are most at risk for mental health disorders, and fifty-one percent of mental illness patients suffer from a chronic physical illnessAccording to WHO, almost all people affected by emergencies will experience psychological distress, but that it tends to improve over time.  

Increasing demand for mental health services

While the impact of COVID-19 on mental health looks different for every person, it’s fair to speculate that there may be a significantly increased need for mental health services that are already in high demand. To tackle the challenge, Microsoft has several programs underway to support individuals and health care systems on their mental health journeys. 

Technology to support mental health treatment

In-person clinical treatments are often inconvenient for the patient, not scalable and expensive for clinical organizations. And with government restrictions in some areas for social distancing, in-person visits may not be possible.  

Using technology, someone seeking help with mental health can use a variety of digital resources such as habit tracking or cognitive remediation apps, online peer support groups, phone helplines, app-based chats with mental health professionals, and more 

Access to digital psychotherapy programs, such as internet-delivered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (iCBT), will be vital to support patients from the privacy and safety of their homes. Digital delivery of mental health treatment options can remove barriers and increase access to care.  

Artificial intelligence can improve mental health services

Microsoft is working to reduce the gap between people who have mental illness and the tools and interventions that can help them. Technology-enhanced mental health and well-being interventions can increase engagement in activities that promote well-being and self-efficacy.  

Here are some of the projects underway at Microsoft to improve mental health resources.

  • Microsoft is embarking on Project Talia, an exploration of how to best leverage AI to help improve the effectiveness of vital mental health services. Project Talia is a collaboration with SilverCloud Health, a leading digital therapeutics platform for mental and behavioral health. This partnership will explore how AI can be used to enhance SilverCloud Health’s digital mental health services that deliver Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) programs to a large and growing number of people in need of adequate care. Using probabilistic machine learning frameworks, the aim is to find new routes for personalizing treatments and improving patient engagement and clinical outcomes.
  • Microsoft launched the AI for Accessibility program in 2018, and disability and accessibility partners have demonstrated how AI can empower people with disabilities with tools that support independence and productivity. We recognize the opportunity to spark new research in AI and machine learning to fundamentally change the ways people and organizations use technology to understand mental health conditions better and provide services that empower those with mental health conditions to realize their potential.
  • A mobile app called Pocket Skills helps people better manage their mental health by translating evidence-based CBT to technology-delivered interventions. Pocket Skills is a conversational platform to help people learn and implement concrete coping skills to manage negative events and emotions better.
  • At some point in time, almost everyone experiences moments at work where a positive coping mechanism could help improve their well-being and productivity. In Focus Agent, we developed a conversational agent that watches distracted behaviors and provides gentle nudges for a small break or a gentle prompt to refocus on tasks.
  • Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Depression is one of the most common challenges for patients during and after cancer treatments, and up to 24 percent of cancer patients have been clinically diagnosed with depression. About 75 percent of cancer patients will not receive adequate treatment, including 25 percent that will receive no treatment at all. Microsoft is collaborating with the University of Washington and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to design and develop technologies to facilitate, deliver, and enhance integrative behavioral care in cancer centers to reduce the number of cancer patients with psychosocial care needs that fall through the cracks.
  • Last October, Microsoft partnered with Lauv, a musician who is bringing his fans together by giving them a platform to share their thoughts, enhanced by Microsoft AI. Lauv shares his mental health journey with his fans through his songs, and most recently, his fans can share their innermost thoughts with the world as well. Lauv’s goal is to help people see the commonalities in their own mental health struggles, so he teamed up with Microsoft to digitally bring it to life for fans to access from anywhere in the world.

Supporting healthcare providers

With the increased need for mental health services, Microsoft has been working overtime to help organizations meet the changing healthcare landscape.

Greater Manchester Mental Health, a trust that delivers mental health services throughout Greater Manchester and Cumbria, has to support 6,000 staff across 100 locations, including mobile workers and consultants. They work all over the region delivering health services in practices and in the community. To meet productivity needs, the health system upgraded to Windows 10 and issued Surface Pro devices to staff who can now move wherever they need to in a secure, seamless, and scalable way. Videoconferencing through Skype helps connect their diverse, disbursed workforce. All this support means they can focus on delivering quality patient care.

Supporting each other on a journey to good mental health

Using a combination of the tools and resources available today, and with the support of one another, a journey to good mental health is possible. Taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help support your mental health, and it will also make our communities stronger.