Youth mental health took a nosedive during the pandemic. In a study from StatsCanada, 57 percent of teens aged 15 to 17 reported worse or much worse mental health since the pandemic. For Kids Help Phone, a charitable organisation that provides online and telephone mental health counselling for youth in Canada, the lockdowns and their aftermath led to a huge influx of calls and messages.
Kids Help Phone has been supporting youth mental health for 34 years, and it operates a 24/7 live chat for young Canadians struggling with their mental health. It also runs online peer forums and connects youth to other mental health resources, such as counsellors. But as youth mental health declines, Kids Help Phone’s frontline workers are under pressure. In response, the charity is developing several AI tools that support frontline staff in connecting youth to the help and resources they need. Alia Lachana, Kids Help Phone’s senior director of innovation says it is aiming to create “a system both for those providing help and those seeking it that’s augmented by an entire range of AI tools.”
Kids Help Phone, in partnership with the Elevate tech festival and MaRS, recently announced a $2 million innovation challenge for startups to create and trial AI and other technologies to support youth mental health. The challenge aims to find and develop ideas to create a range of resources that can be personalized and adapt to young people’s needs as they grow up.
“We know that AI and technology is impacting mental health and kids. We want to be involved in creating the model,” Lachana says.
One tool Kids Help Phone is already working on is a service recommendation machine to assist its intake workers. These staff make decisions about the urgency of the youth’s need and guide them towards the most appropriate help. The in-development AI model analyses calls or messages for keywords that indicate what the user is experiencing and how severe their need is. It can then provide frontline workers with recommendations for resources — anything from reading materials to an immediate call with a counsellor.
Kids Help Phone is uniquely positioned to pioneer AI tools to support youth mental health: It has the biggest anonymous and aggregated youth mental health dataset in Canada, based on years of calls and chats. With privacy front of mind, Kids Help Phone is also working hard to make sure their models are built to be “safe, responsible and transparent,” Lachana says.
Given the sensitivity of the data the charity is keeping all the information it has collected aggregated and anonymous to protect the identities of those who use the service. To combat bias, Lachana says that it is using a participatory design process that ensures that young people are involved “every step of the way while we’re building.” Kids Help Phone is holding youth engagement sessions (as well as community-specific ones, such as one for Indigenous youth) to hear their thoughts on mental health and the use of AI.
Despite having a huge dataset, Kids Help Phone needs partners to make these AI tools a reality. With the new challenge, Lachana says that Kids Help Phone is hoping to tap into the expertise of startups and to create new innovations that will help support youth mental health in this time of crisis. “Kids Help Phone is an innovation charity, and we want to use AI for good,” says Lachana. “We require partners to join us for the wellbeing of all young people.”
The goal of these new AI tools is to make accessing mental health support quick and easy, so kids get the help they need before a situation escalates. Ultimately, Lacana says, the charity aims to develop more “services that are preventative, not only reactive.”
Learn more about the innovation challenge and get involved on the Kids Help Phone website.
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