In lieu of Mental Health Awareness Month, it is imperative to address the scope of the problem and how data science can be used to make a promising change and impact in the field.

Mental illnesses span a broad range of issues and affect millions of people every year. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it was found that 1 in 5 adults suffer from a form of mental illness with more women (22%) suffering relative to men (15%). However, mental illnesses can begin much earlier in childhood. For some people, the illness can interfere with their ability to work, socialize, or the ability to even leave the house. It is unfortunate that over half of those affected by mental illness do not receive treatment for reasons ranging from cost to the negative stigma associated with having a mental illness. Delaying treatment can have deleterious effects on not only the individual but families and even the economy of countries.

Data scientists have started using machine learning techniques to process large datasets in hopes of revealing interesting patterns and findings that could lead to improved detection in the causes, signs, and symptoms of mental illness. As the algorithms created continue to be refined and perfected, there is hope that the power of data science can solve these crucial problems and lead to promising changes in the near future.

Crisis Text Line

Crisis Text Line (CTL), a nonprofit founded in 2013 by CEO Nancy Lublin, has provided a free text-based and human-driven service to support those experiencing mental health stress, gathering data points from more than 100 million text messages sent and maximizing the impact of their information to better train counselors and support their community. Previously the CEO of, another nonprofit that encouraged social action among the youth, Nancy observed interesting patterns in the texts that the company received. Realizing that text is a great medium to reach out to kids, she also found that many kids opened up severe mental health issues impacted by traumatic situations ranging from bullying, assault, and suicidal ideations. This prompted her to start and establish CTL as a crisis counseling center fielding text messages from those who may be suffering from a crisis or contemplating self-harm or suicide. The service gives these people the ability to communicate with a counselor through text messages, a method they may feel more comfortable with than a live phone conversation.

With the current trajectory showing that more than 100,000,000 text messages can be exchanged within just the next year using the app, Nancy also realized the time-sensitive marketplace of counselors to help those in need of “ears.” CTL consists of over 20,000 crisis counselors who have done an impressive job of handling millions of messages with over an 86% approval rating. The company has done a phenomenal job in handling hard conversations and using the power of data to look at the next steps that would help the mental health space.

CTL collects data ranging from actual text conversations to feedback from both the counselors and texters. Using these various data sources, scientists have been able to use machine learning to identify interesting patterns that could be indicative of potential threats including suicide based on certain words sent by the texter.  This illustrates how machine learning can be more effective than human intuition traditionally used by mental health professionals. With the intelligence gleaned from both the Crisis Text Line training and large sentiment-rich data corpus, the next steps including leveraging the information to create enterprise software to help companies provide a service to its employees that could be impactful in the near future.

Empower Work

Another organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area is striving to help employees train peer counselors (on a volunteer basis) to listen to texters that would like to talk about anything that feels challenging, overwhelming, or tough at work. While a completely stress-free workplace is unrealistic, it is important to address that a negative work environment and situations can be detrimental to not only the mental health of employees but to the productivity of workplaces. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that untreated mental illness costs the U.S. over $100 billion per year in lost productivity. And a 2016 World Health Organization study revealed that investment in mental health care yields a fourfold return in the form of better health and productivity.

Therefore, it is to the advantage of companies to create good working conditions that promote a healthy mental space for employees. A recent survey from the Willis Towers Watson survey said they planned to invest in behavioral health to help manage rising health care costs. In April, the U.S. Department of Labor launched an online Mental Health Toolkit full of information for employers looking to support their employees’ mental health. Here are just a few crucial statistics:

  • Only 9% of employers sponsor worksite campaigns to raise awareness of suicide.
  • Only 13% offer worksite education programs focused on suicide awareness.
  • Most show little interest in taking actions in the next three years, (see chart).
  • 32% of U.S. employees reported suffering from severe stress, anxiety or depression in the last two years.
  • Only 23% use a program from their employer’s health plan or wellbeing programs.

Lyra Health

Finally, Lyra Health is a growing healthcare startup out of Burlingame, CA (San Francisco Bay Area) that is transforming mental health care by creating a frictionless experience for members, providers, and employers. Using technology and data, Lyra connects companies and their employees to mental health providers, therapy, and coaching programs that work using a proprietary algorithm matching process that is proven and tested. The unique matching process is seamless in how the recipient wants the care—through therapy and coaching programs, in-person and live video sessions, or even self-guided digital care. And best of all—thanks to Lyra’s connections with companies, there is no co-pay, no claims to file, and no cost to the employees (which is normally one of the main reasons people stop attending therapy).

Future Role of Data Science in the Mental Health Industry

As research has found that patients are more open to sharing personal information with an AI-powered therapist (or app) relative to a human, organizations like CTL and Empower Work are headed in the right direction. Researchers and companies are investigating technologically advanced tools that will improve the quality and amount of data being collected. Moving forward, finding new and improved data collection methods will be vital to Data Science’s future impact on mental healthcare.

Data science continues to grow and expand in all domains rapidly; the need for data science in the mental health space is tremendous and thankfully, there are companies like CTL, Lyra Health, and Empower Work that is working hard to drive growth and impact in the space.