About one in every eight women experiences symptoms of postpartum depression, also known as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), per CDC data — and with a national shortage of mental health providers, many may find it difficult to get care.
Researchers at the University of Texas are looking to bridge that gap by using artificial intelligence, according to a report from Kris 6 News in Texas.
In partnership with the nonprofit organization Postpartum Support International, the researchers are testing a new AI chatbot that will be available to women through a free app.
The chatbot’s algorithm is trained to handle common postpartum questions and issues — such as trouble with personal connections and breastfeeding challenges.
In their research, the team found that many women they studied struggled to find care due to a “stigma” associated with PMAD.
“A lot of them just felt so misunderstood and so invalidated,” said Miriam Mikhelson, one of the researchers.
“It’s not only so hard to find time and money and availability to see somebody that could potentially help … but even when you do, you still might end up with someone who is just not addressing your needs.”
In an announcement of the project on its website, the University of Texas stated, “This project will develop a chatbot logic structure that draws from research with a cross-section of mothers, thus enhancing our ability to better understand what kinds of support they seek from care providers.”
“As a result, our findings have the potential to better understand the social and cultural dynamics that shape what kind of support those grappling with postpartum depression seek.”
Symptoms of postpartum depression can vary among individuals. Common warning signs include feelings of anger, crying more often than usual, pulling away from loved ones, feeling numb or disconnected from the baby, having concerns about hurting the baby or feeling incapable of caring for the infant, according to the CDC.
Michiel Rauws, founder and CEO of Cass, an AI startup and mental health assistant, has firsthand experience with chatbot technology benefiting women who are suffering from postpartum depression.
“Duke University has used our chatbot technology to help women who are suffering from postpartum,” San Francisco-based Rauws told Fox News Digital.
“Together we have published two peer-reviewed research articles on its impact.”
AI technologies were particularly effective in reaching mothers in rural areas, Rauws noted.
“In the case of our postpartum chatbot, we deployed the program in Kenya for young mothers in rural communities,” he said. “For the community in Kenya, this service was available both in the local language and in English.”
“AI does not replace human empathy and support.”
Chatbots are very effective at delivering cost-effective, self-help support, he added.
“From our work with partners in Texas, we learned it will be important for this program to be available in Spanish, and AI helps to break down language barriers to make information and services accessible to all,” he also said.
Potential risks and limitations
One limitation with the chatbot in development at the University of Texas is that it is powered by an app, Rauws noted.
“Nowadays it is a logical option, but it has several limitations,” he said. “From our research studies, we learned that those who most need this type of support live in rural areas. Not everyone in those areas has consistent access to an internet connection or smartphone.”
It’s also very important that the right support structure is in place, Rauws noted.
“Without the right integration with regular care pathways, it could affect the quality of care,” he warned. “So, it’s very important that as soon as someone says, ‘I want to talk to a person,’ they get handed over to a crisis counselor or referred to a telehealth visit from their health plan.”
Monte Swarup, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN in Chandler, Arizona, and founder of the HPV information site HPV HUB, is not affiliated with UT, but shared her opinion of the use of AI chatbots for women suffering from postpartum depression.
“AI chatbots could provide beneficial support to help women suffering from postpartum depression, but it’s important to note that it’s a tool and not a replacement for treatment and therapy,” she told Fox News Digital.
AI doesn’t have the same ability to monitor a patient’s progress accurately, as a human does, she noted.
“It also will not be able to measure whether a patient is getting better,” said Swarup. “AI does not replace human empathy and support.”
While a chatbot could be a valuable addition to an overall treatment plan and a mental health resource, Swarup pointed out that much more research is needed to determine its benefits in helping women with postpartum depression.
The University of Texas expects that its AI chatbot will be available to women by 2024.