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AI to tackle post-crisis mental health demand

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Tech agency Innovate UK has awarded funding to a project which uses AI to help schools address the mental health of its pupils.

It is hoped the “emotionally-intelligent chat platform” will help to meet the “tsunami of mental health” problems among adolescents; which some believe will be exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and its various challenges.

Young Minds, developed by tech firm Wysa, provides AI-driven mental health support to 13 to 18-year-olds.

Wysa is one of the companies chosen from over 8,000 applicants to receive new Innovate UK funding set aside to meet issues caused by lockdown restrictions as a result of the global pandemic.

Young Minds’ research recently found that 83 per cent of young people polled thought their mental health had worsened during COVID-19.

In some cases, waiting times for therapy support for children waiting to access the CAMHS service can be as high as twelve months.

A 2018 survey found that three-quarters of respondents get worse before they are able to access treatment. 

Emma Selby, Wysa’s UK lead, says: “Wysa applied for funding to address growing concerns over a ‘tsunami of mental health’ that is continuing to swell in our adolescent population.

“Mental health in children was already a rising concern prior to the pandemic. Since then school closures, uncertainty, isolation, fear for loved ones and restriction of access to support have come together to form a perfect storm.

“We’re delighted that Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency has chosen Wysa as an innovator for AI in Mental Health.

“AI in healthcare is a focus area for innovation in the UK, and we see this funding as helping us build upon Wysa’s leadership in this area to enhance mental health services within the UK through an AI-enabled approach.” 

Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, has invested £20m in innovation projects to support responses to the COVID crisis.

Wysa will use its funding to enable it to offer a population-level preventative programme to young people across the country until September.

This includes free access to bespoke adolescent-focused mental health support modules of our award-winning app, with support strategies and exercises written by clinical experts.

Using Wysa’s combination of AI chat, digital self-help and human support, users will “get a space to just talk, access to 100+ self-management techniques, and support from Wysa’s trained mental health coaches”.

Users ‘chat’ with a friendly penguin friend on the Wysa app, who makes recommendations of exercises to do and going through them together.

The Wysa app also checks in daily to see how you’re doing, and can signpost to further support if needed.

Selby says: “We hope that during a time when school counsellors are less accessible and stress and tensions are high, Wysa can be here to support our young people.

“The project will also provide us with an anonymised insight into how the pandemic has affected younger people’s mental health through our in-built use of outcome measures. This is information that could change the way we respond to future global crises, and we look forward to publishing the results at the end of this year.”

Access to the app will be promoted through secondary schools across the country.

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