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Using AI to improve the lives of children with mental health problems

A game-changing application of artificial intelligence (AI) is set to help front-line professionals make earlier diagnoses of mental health problems in children and potentially change the course of their lives.

It can be hard to identify long-term and serious mental health conditions at a young age, as symptoms can present as a child not doing well at school, struggling with friendships or changes in behaviour. Having mental health problems in childhood can make a lasting impact into adulthood, on health, wellbeing, employment and relationships.

Now, a new research programme will see if it’s possible to use computer programmes to spot patterns in anonymised data-sets, in order to recognise early signs and risks of children developing a serious mental health problem.

The ambition of the programme is to ensure patients can access help sooner. This will make a real difference to lives of many young people and could lead to shorter episodes of care, less intrusive intervention and better mental health outcomes.

AI will be deployed to will look for common elements in anonymised health information about children, such as amount of time off school and certain conditions. The data for the research comes from pre-existing and already anonymised data sets that are available for research purposes. The data provider undertakes a rigorous process that allows data from different providers to be linked but remain non-identifiable.

Following rigorous ethical evaluation, the research programme led by Cambridge child psychiatrist Dr Anna Moore, has received £295,000 funding from the Alan Turing Institute, the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence.

Anna said: “We are at the beginning of this exciting programme, gathering as much data as possible to take into account the whole child. This includes a wide range of information such as adverse childhood experiences, school attendance and attainment, risk concerns and other patterns of using support services."

Children who have access to early help can see the severity of their mental health condition reduced and it also leads to better education and social outcomes for young people, as well as their families.

Dr Anna Moore, child psychiatrist
Dr Anna Moore
Dr Anna Moore, child psychiatrist

The research programme is working in partnership with parents, guardians and young people, and with professionals working in the health system to design the research. At this early stage the main aim is to explore whether building an acceptable and suitable AI model is possible. The next steps would involve patient and public consultation before the AI model could be tested in research conditions using identifiable clinical datasets from individuals who consent to participate.

Bringing together mental health and research, alongside physical health, is the ambition of Cambridge Children’s Hospital. The NHS and the University of Cambridge project is a globally unique partnership which brings together unrivalled clinical and academic knowledge. The hospital will revolutionise how we detect and treat illness and will treat the whole child in a more personal and holistic way. To read more about our vision, visit the Cambridge Children’s Hospital website.