How Artificial Intelligence Is (Forever) Changing the Way Behavioral Health Treatment Is Practiced

Updated on October 26, 2023

With artificial intelligence making waves across a whole host of industries, it isn’t surprising to see it impacting healthcare as well. Notably, artificial intelligence is even changing the way behavioral health treatment is practiced. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jon Read, co-founder of Confidant Health, which offers virtual behavioral health clinics with a specific focus on helping people who need support reducing drug and alcohol use.

As Read explains, while artificial intelligence isn’t going to replace human clinicians, it holds great potential for augmenting service and improving overall behavioral health outcomes.

Going Beyond the Hype

Ever since AI began dominating tech headlines, one of the biggest topics of conversation is the potential for it to replace humans at work. And while many jobs are certainly at risk, Read doesn’t think that behavioral therapy is among them.

“Machines and algorithms can’t understand the nuanced variables that go into behavioral therapy. They don’t have the empathy — that personal approach — that is so vital to effective therapy,” Read notes. “There’s a level of insight and help that can only be accomplished with actual person to person interactions.”

Indeed, even ChatGPT seems reluctant to go along with the idea of replacing human psychiatrists, noting that it lacks the empathy, human connection and understanding of individual and cultural nuances to effectively offer diagnosis and treatment. However, in those same conversations, ChatGPT cites its ability to complement and support the role of professional behavioral therapists — and this is where Read sees the greatest opportunities.

Practical Applications for AI

“AI isn’t going to replace behavioral therapists, but it is making us better at our jobs. Data-based insights can make it easier to deliver information on a patient’s health history, symptoms and responses to treatments to help therapists make accurate diagnoses and provide more personalized treatment. With quality information to guide decision-making, therapists can quickly develop an individualized plan that is more likely to deliver meaningful results. And on a practical level, AI can go a long way in freeing up therapists’ time by automating mundane, time-consuming tasks like data entry and documentation.”

Notably, one study even found that artificial intelligence can detect symptoms of anxiety with 92% accuracy, simply by using motion sensors to monitor for behavior linked with anxiety. While more research is needed to fully explore and fine-tune this potential application, in this case, AI-powered detection of mental illness could help clinicians identify treatment needs much sooner, helping patients avoid more serious long-term outcomes.

Read also notes that even though chatbots and other AI tools cannot truly replace human behavioral health providers, they often play a role in filling accessibility gaps.

“A properly programmed chatbot can provide advice and input on how to deal with some mental health concerns — like offering self-help strategies, walking people through a screening process and so on. Of course, to ensure that they offer valid and useful information, the best of these tools don’t rely on generative AI, but instead on statements that have been reviewed or written by human therapists. Such resources can be a real game changer for people who don’t have easy access to behavioral therapy but need some form of immediate support.”

We’re Not Ready for AI Doctors Yet

Despite the advances in AI, there are several factors ensuring that human behavioral therapists won’t be replaced anytime soon — and not just because patients want to have a “human” experience. “Data privacy is a major concern anytime AI is involved,” Read explains.

“There’s been plenty of controversy in publishing, for example, with authors whose books were used without permission to train AI. Bring that same type of issue into the medical field, where AI is potentially collecting and analyzing private and sensitive patient data, and it’s easy to see where privacy parameters need to be put in place. Throw in concerns about bias, discrimination and potentially inaccurate statements, and it’s clear that therapists cannot become overly dependent on these tools. They must continue to use their own judgement and knowledge.”

Despite this, Read remains positive about AI’s potential to augment and support the work of behavioral therapists. By streamlining their work and improving their ability to diagnose mental health disorders, therapists will be better positioned to address the individual needs of each patient. At the same time, therapy will become more accessible and affordable as therapists gain more time for what matters most in their role — working directly with their patients.

A Bright Future …

“We’re still in the early days of adopting AI in behavioral health treatment and other areas,” Read says. “That means that a lot of our learning on how to effectively use this resource is still on the horizon. However, I’m confident that as tech innovators look for ways to get AI to supplement and support the work of behavioral health therapists, it can ultimately lead to more effective and accessible treatment.”

Regardless of how therapists feel about the use of AI in their work, it is clear that these tools will become more widespread and engrained in behavioral health treatment in the months and years to come. By embracing and effectively using these tools, therapists will be able to deliver better outcomes for their patients.

Anthony Jones is a freelance writer with over 15 years of experience writing about health supplements for various health and fitness magazines. He also owns a health supplements store in Topeka, Kansas. Anthony earned his health and science degree at Duke University, where he studied the effects of exercise and nutrition on human physiology.