New AI program could help screen seniors for depression and anxiety through video calls

AI is used to measure facial expressions, with the software program mapping positive and negative emotions in real time. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - A new program will help counsellors accurately diagnose senior citizens for mental health concerns such as anxiety, stress and depression through a video call.

The counsellors will tap artificial intelligence (AI) to measure facial expressions, with the software program mapping positive and negative emotions in real time.

Developed by Singapore-based company Opsis Emotion AI, the technology is being applied in a community-driven initiative targeting seniors in Singapore, with Temasek Foundation committing more than $190,000 to support the programme.

Social service agency Lions Befrienders will be piloting it over the next two years with about 4,300 seniors.

During a live demonstration on Wednesday (June 30), staff from Lions Befrienders simulated a counselling session with two senior volunteers.

Their responses and facial expressions were captured on video and analysed by the software installed on a counsellor's device.

At the end of the sessions, the program presented heat maps of each participant's positive and negative emotions.

A clinical trial held in August last year that involved about 30 participants found that the program was up to 85 per cent accurate when compared with assessments made by counsellors who engaged the participants.

Lions Befrienders, which serves about 7,600 seniors in rental flats, said the new initiative would complement the agency's existing mental health screening protocol, and help counsellors better assess clients during virtual sessions amid the pandemic.

It rolled out virtual counselling last year.

Lions Befrienders' chairman Anthony Tay said: "The impact of Covid-19 is profound, with the suspension of programmes and services during the circuit breaker causing more seniors to feel isolated, anxious and depressed.

"We have introduced virtual counselling, but reduction in visual and auditory verbal cues may make it harder to detect emotions. The advances in artificial intelligence such as facial emotions detection will assist our staff in screening for mental health issues and enable our seniors to receive earlier and better care."

The software program works with video sources including webcams.

Lions Befrienders said its counsellors can organise care planning for seniors based on the digital analysis.

In cases where seniors show symptoms of severe depression, the agency will refer them to medical centres near where they live for further consultation. The centres are the National University Hospital, Changi General Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health.

Mr Keith Tan, befriender executive (mental health) of Lions Befrienders, explaining the use of the AI tool which analyses facial emotions as a supplementary tool to virtual counselling, on June 30, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Deputy chairman of Temasek Foundation Richard Magnus noted that the program, which measures non-verbal cues, would also help in detecting mental health concerns among reticent seniors who are not open to discussing their condition.

He said: "We are culturally shy to share our mental health problems. Our resilient seniors especially keep this condition away from their children so as not to burden them. Facial emotion analysis has tremendous potential to help us detect mental health issues accurately and address them early."

During the pilot phase which will begin in July, social workers, counsellors and case managers from Lions Befrienders will test bed the program during one-to-one and group counselling sessions, as well as community screenings.

The social workers and case managers will confirm the data derived from the program with their own observations to determine its effectiveness.

Staff and volunteers will then follow up with seniors who expressed negative emotions associated with depression for further assessment or enrolment in counselling or befriending sessions.

Counsellor Stephen Ong, who has five years of experience in the field and joined Lions Befrienders recently, said the initiative would be a useful asset in early detection of mental health issues among seniors.

"The AI will help me detect and confirm their feelings on site, allowing me to do interventions immediately, ensuring their safety," he said.

If successful, the initiative may be expanded to serve other beneficiaries in the social sector in future, including families and people with special needs.

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