April 5, 2022

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In this issue, venture startups are pouring money into AI tools that attempt to use the sounds and patterns of your voice to identify your mental state. What could go wrong? Plus, letting your mind wander is good for your mental health, a look at how fast food workers have faced the brunt of neglected communities’ mental health crises, and an overview of digital startups connecting Black patients to Black clinicians.

Diagnosis by AI?

Ryzhi/Shutterstock

Imagine getting a mental health diagnosis in the future just by speaking into your smartphone. AI researchers are testing online tools that use the sounds and patterns of your voice to identify your mental state. Pace of speech and tone of voice hold clues, Maria Espinola, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, told the New York Times. The speech of depressed patients is “generally more monotone, flatter and softer,” she said, while patients with anxiety “tend to speak faster. They have more difficulty breathing.” 

Using machine learning that compares the patterns of thousands of patients can pick up patterns that trained clinicians might miss. “The technology that we’re using now can extract features that can be meaningful that even the human ear can’t pick up on,” said Kate Bentley, a Boston-area psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. 

Use of this technology raises thorny questions: Could people’s voices be used to reveal their identities without their consent? Will patients trust “black box algorithms” that are so complex even developers have a hard time explaining them? And what about reifying or creating bias due to a lack of diversity among subjects used to develop the AI? “For machine learning models to work well, you really need to have a very large and diverse and robust set of data,” said Grace Change, co-founder of Kintsugi, a venture-backed startup developing technology for telehealth and call centers. Without large, representative samples, experts say, AI will remain promising but unproven.


Underpaid fast food workers face hazards and violence on the job

In the six years Jose Ramirez worked at a San Francisco McDonald’s franchise, he saw more than his share of bizarre, frightening and violent behavior. The worst, by far, was when he witnessed a man get shot and killed in the fast-food eatery’s parking lot. Such unpredictable encounters with customers experiencing mental health challenges began to damage his own mental health, he told the San Francisco Chronicle – especially since he says he received little support from his employer. “Taking time off to deal with what happened was nonexistent,” he said. And that happened before Covid-19.

Image: San Francisco Chronicle Twitter feed

The pandemic has exacerbated the hazardous conditions that fast food workers face – from  customers resisting mask requirements to mistreatment from their employers, including wage theft and denial of breaks. The Chronicle report used data compiled from 911 calls by Fight for $15, a labor advocacy group pushing for higher pay for low-wage workers. It revealed that in locations with the highest call rates, workers faced open drug use and intoxication, indecent exposure, violent disputes, and threatening behavior from customers. Small wonder they want a raise.


Be productive – let your mind wander

Being overwhelmed is hardly a new thing for Americans; it’s just gotten worse due to the pandemic. Even before March 2020, some 60 percent of U.S. adults said they felt too busy to enjoy life, according to the Pew Research Center. One way to make things, some experts say, is making time to zone out and let the mind wander.Moshe Bar, a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv is the author of Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity. Taking time out to daydream is essential to creativity and problem-solving, he told the Washington Post. “This is how good ideas are born.”


Digital startups founded by Black women connects community to Black clinicians

Image: Therapy for Black Girls Twitter feed

Some people are determined to be treated by a Black physician – even if that means driving up to three hours to see one. It’s what some of Dr. Joy Cooper’s Black patients do to ensure they’re seen in her OB-GYN practice in Sacramento. Many are likely aware that only 3% of U.S. physicians are Black women, and are concerned about medical mistreatment and historic health disparities. For Cooper and other Black clinicians, one way to address the problem is to develop digital platforms that can link Black women seeking care to Black clinicians – either in person or via telehealth.

This approach isn’t only for finding MDs. Maya Hardigan, a Black entrepreneur based in New York, founded Meet Mae, a platform that connects expectant moms to doulas and other valuable resources. “There’s a more robust understanding now of the importance of having culturally specific support and diversity on your care team as a Black person,” Hardigan said. “It actually can impact your health outcomes.” 

These new platforms encourage people who might otherwise be tempted to forego care. Cooper said her platform, Culture Care, is a “one-stop shop that you don’t have to leave your home to go to.” But sometimes, she added, it can also push reluctant patients to get to the doctor. “Sometimes you need someone to tell you to go now,” she said. Other platforms include Health in Her Hue for specialty needs like dermatology and oncology, and the uber-popular Therapy for Black Girls, focused on mental health. 


In other news…

Reddit may not be the best place to seek medical advice, but it does offer a supportive online community that can provide mental health support. A listicle from Inverse shares “The 10 best subreddits for mental health.”

“We read to know that we are not alone,” wrote William Nicholson. Other times, we read to understand something better. To both ends, Book Riot offers several suggestions on good reads about agoraphobia. Often rooted in trauma, agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder in which people avoid places and situations that might cause them to feel panicked, trapped, helpless or embarrassed. Fiction and nonfiction selections are included in the list. 

In the US, if you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a veteran, press 1.


Revolution From the Inside Out  

A new generation of activists from the Young Women’s Freedom Center is working to change the system while struggling to heal from their own traumas.

We Interrupt This Program to Bring You #BlackJoy

We Black people—Black Americans in this case—know hard times, but our lives also sparkle with joy.

Librarians’ Mental Health Threatened By Book Bans, Abuse And Harassment

Some librarians used to make jokes about Fahrenheit 451 as they pushed back on threats. No longer.

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Courtney Wise

Courtney Wise Randolph is a writer and creative based in Detroit, Michigan.