Confronting what most mental health apps won't
Cam AI wants to help teens back from the brink with conversational A.I.
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Today’s startup is busy tackling a highly sensitive topic, and one that most mental health tech won’t address at all.
By beginning from a psychological, rather than a tech, perspective, can Cam AI intervene to save young people when they need help the most? Scroll down to read more.
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Cam AI is tackling what most mental health apps won't
Content warning: discussion of self-harm and suicide follows, so feel free skip this edition and read one of our previous editions if you prefer.
The UK’s Online Safety Bill is massively delayed and is seemingly revised every week, but that just goes to show what a complex and difficult problem keeping the public safe on the internet really is.
And while tech companies have a strong reputational incentive to prioritise user safety, they also need to tread carefully with the support they give.
This is particularly true when comes to self-harm and suicide, as the death of Molly Russell highlighted.
If you offer too much support, you could find yourself liable if that support fails, but just providing a link to a third-party support organisation might simply not be effective enough to have an impact.
Cam AI is a Cambridge University spinout looking to fix that problem, using conversational A.I. to provide timely interventions that could save young people from entering a very dark place. The company is currently training its chatbot tech on transcriptions of real therapy sessions.
“There are probably thousands of wellness apps. However, they might purport to be mental health apps helping this patient group or this demographic, but actually, they're really not,” says Cam AI founder and CEO Robert Batt.
“The evidence shows that talking about suicide reduces suicide. All those thousands of wellness apps that may purport to be mental health apps, if you say ‘I feel suicidal’ to their chatbot it will ask you to leave their platform… ‘Sorry, we can't help. I suggest you call 999 or the Samaritans’, or whatever it might be.
“They are just providing a sticking plaster to people's moods, they're not actually shifting moods.”
Conversely, Cam AI wants to prioritise this delicate problem, with a solution rooted in psychology rather than technology.
In addition to Cam AI, Batt is also the CEO of TRC (The Recovery Centre), a company that runs mental health clinics with a particular focus on the needs of young people.
Cam AI is founded on this experience combined with that of Professor Sabine Bahn, a neurotechnology academic at Cambridge.
The pair met while Batt was doing research at Cambridge into how chatbots can reduce cravings among adolescents.
“What we found was that really basic CBT [cognitive behaviour therapy] interventions had a significant effect on the cravings that those young people had,” says Batt.
“More specifically, [young people] were saying ‘at two in the morning, there's no one else to speak to. I can't ring my friend and say I want to cut myself, or I want to do 100 sit-ups, or binge and purge.’ What we found was that the chatbot was able to support them through that craving.”
Batt says that once the young person had started the behaviour they craved, CBT interventions couldn’t help, so early intervention was key. And a chatbot meant they could get help on demand. So, Batt, Bahn, and their team are developing a way to deploy their combined expertise at scale.
Cam AI was spun out with the support of venture builder Cambridge Future Tech, which specialises in building startups around academic research. We’ve covered some of their other companies in the past, such as Mignon, GitLife Biotech, Mimicrete, and NeuroXR.
CamAI’s plan is to initially offer its chatbot for free with the aim of saving as many lives as possible. With a team of 11, they are working towards this with the development of their MVP.
“The tech element is pretty straightforward, it is the psychological element that is difficult. Luckily, that's where our expertise is. And then we overlay that with our tech team, whose job is to implement that.”
While a full product launch is still some way away, Batt says the MVP will make an impact by itself: “the more that young people are able to access this algorithm, the quicker they get support, and also the quicker we learn.”
As for how they make money from this, Batt appears to be taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.
“We have a master plan, and we’re keen not to give too much away… With the experience we have in our team, we are probably better placed than anyone to be able to provide a solution to the suffering that young people have.
“If we can deliver that, and make a difference, then we can name our own business model, whether that is an API to schools, universities, or social media, or whether this is a standalone app, or something we give to people on waiting lists.”
Go deeper on Cam AI
Much more on their funding, vision, competition, and challenges: