Listen to the news
Cambridge will develop an artificial intelligence system designed to speed up the diagnosis of mental illness in children.
The technology will use routinely collected data on children to find patterns that identify those most at risk for mental disorders. Dr Anna Moore, who led the project, said she could "revolutionise" care and highlight the need for more resources.
"Early diagnosis means it can be treated more easily," she said.
Child psychiatrists believe there is a "crisis" in child mental health care, and according to NHS estimates, 20% of people under the age of 24 probably need some form of mental health support.
Dr. Moore has just received a $2.5 million scholarship. 5.7 million for future UK research and innovation leaders (UKRI) to continue the programme. She said she had been a direct witness to this as a consultant psychiatrist, but - as an expert in clinical informatics at the University of Cambridge - said she believed there could be a digital solution.
"Our mental health is influenced by genetics, our early life experiences, and our current environment," Dr. Moore said.
"We will use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology to look at the information that is collected about us by health, education and social services throughout childhood. By putting all this together, we hope to find trends that may alert the doctor that the child may develop an early mental illness."
Bullying, poverty in the family, physical health problems can affect the mental health of the child. Ali, 16, helps her mother and brother who have a muscle-wasting disorder but also has her own physical health problems that make it difficult to go to school.
"One year my attendance was only 20%," Ali told the BBC. "I felt isolated, anxious and very weak. It's as if my lockdown in Covid-19 was extended for a few more years. Taking care of a child is also a challenge. You're worried about whether you're doing too much or not enough to help."
EU countries and MEPs agree on regulation of artificial intelligence
Ali and his brother had mental health issues and struggled to get timely support. The system being developed by Dr. Moore aims to help young people like Ali without them having to ask for it.
"Young caregivers often don't recognize that they need help themselves, so they can fall into the cracks of the system," says Dr. Moore. "One hope is that these algorithms will identify children whose problems are not usually noticed, so they will be offered support."
Ali welcomed the research, saying: "This is incredible. The data is reviewed anyway, and it will be confidential, so I don't have any problems with that. It's a smart idea and I think it's going to save lives."
Dr Moore will develop this system with the help of Microsoft to be used in the NHS and at the upcoming Children's Hospital in Cambridge. The Kavli Centre for Ethics and the Human Inspired Artificial Intelligence Centre are also involved to ensure that the project evolves in a way that will benefit patients. All data collected to program the algorithms will be anonymized, with names and personal information replaced by codes.
Dr Moore said: "We've worked with families for years, explaining to them what data we're going to need, how we're going to make it secure, impartial, and why we think it's needed. Their main concern was that none of our data should be made available to police forces or to commercial organizations such as insurance companies, which will not. They supported us overwhelmingly."
Jeremy Bernhout, head of policy and influence at Rethink Mental Illness, said: "Early intervention for young people struggling with their mental health can be life-saving. In many cases, however, young people find themselves on heartbreakingly long waiting lists for support, and the urgent priority is to address the problem of lack of funding and manpower."
Dr Moore hopes this project will highlight the need for more resources and that the technology can make advances in mental health care in the same way it has worked in physical conditions such as diabetes and cancer.
Follow the channel on