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Ms Lim Li Cheng, a retired bank receptionist, 70, who suffers from schizophrenia, spends most of her time alone in her home, a one-room rental flat in Clementi.
At times, she finds herself consumed by negative thoughts and mood swings. These feelings became more intense during the circuit breaker period in 2020.
“I felt frustrated and agitated as I could only stay at home,” said Li Cheng, who is single, and has been living alone for about 10 years.
However, she has grown calmer and more relaxed in recent months. She attributes the improvement in her mental and emotional well-being to the fortnightly mental health screening sessions, which tap on Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, and follow-up counselling sessions organised by social service agency Lions Befrienders (LB).
“After talking to the counsellors and sharing my feelings, I feel less stressed,” said Li Cheng.
Li Cheng is among over 4,000 seniors who will be screened by the end of 2023 for mental health issues such as anxiety, stress and depression as part of LB’s Facial Analysis Correlation of Emotions (F.A.C.E.) programme. The programme, which was rolled out in July 2021, is supported by a S$190,000 grant from Temasek Foundation that covers costs such as the purchase of laptops and software licence fees.
The screening sessions, which last about 15 minutes, sees LB staff asking a series of questions such as “How is your day?”, “How was your lunch?” and “Are there any concerns you would like to share?” The seniors’ responses and facial expressions are then captured on video and analysed by the AI software.
The software uses proprietary computer vision algorithms and machine learning techniques to analyse facial expressions and generates reports within minutes after the sessions are completed. The reports provide information on the emotions that the seniors are feeling such as contentment, sadness and fear.
Based on the reports, counsellors recommend appropriate follow-up actions, such as referring serious cases to hospitals or counselling sessions for milder cases. To date, some 200 seniors have been referred to hospitals or have gone for counselling.
Since the start of the pandemic two years ago, LB observed that more of the seniors whom it reaches out to through its befriending and care programmes are showing signs of mental health issues. Many of the seniors whom LB serves live alone or lack family support and have been feeling more isolated during the pandemic.
The social service agency wanted to conduct regular screenings as a pre-emptive measure to identify seniors who have been feeling stressed or depressed. However, it lacks the manpower to conduct the screenings. LB has 15 social workers and counsellors, and over 1,500 volunteers who support more than 7,600 seniors.
“Singapore’s population is ageing. We can only provide mental health support to a fraction of our seniors with our current manpower,” said Karen Wee, LB’s Executive Director.
In July 2020, LB found the solution to conduct the screenings effectively and efficiently in the AI software which was developed by Opsis Emotion AI, a Singapore-based start-up and spin-off from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
Social stigma and fear of losing face are preventing many seniors from sharing or seeking help for their mental health problems. Some are also socially isolated, especially during the pandemic, which can feed into negative tendencies and aggravate their mental condition further. We hope that the evidence-based F.A.C.E. programme can help detect mental health issues accurately, and allow early intervention in order to keep our seniors more healthy and resilient.
Lim Hock Chuan, Head, Programmes, Temasek Foundation
It takes about two weeks to train a person, who does not need experience in counselling, to operate the AI software and conduct a 15-minute question and answer session. In comparison, it takes counsellors, who need to have at least three years of experience, about 30 minutes to conduct a traditional mental health screening session and provide an assessment.
LB has found that the assessments provided by the AI software are nearly as accurate as those done by counsellors. A clinical trial held in August 2020, that involved about 30 participants, found that the AI software was up to 93% accurate as compared to the assessments done by counsellors.
“The software can distinguish hundreds of expressions and can also give an indication of the person having possible mental health issues,” said Andrew Ow, CEO of Opsis Emotion AI.
Seniors said the screenings are useful and would recommend it to others who want to understand their emotions better.
“The screenings have helped me to become more aware of my feelings. My counsellor also reminds me to relax and focus on things that are important. I feel calmer now,” said Li Cheng.