Senser Foundation and Philtech launch hackathon to harness AI for mental health 

In the event, which kicks off next month, participating organizations will pitch their idea with the hope of winning $40,000 and eight months of guidance

Artificial intelligence and mental health are not often linked in people’s minds. Therapists are empathetic, while AI literally lacks feelings. Often therapists are amazing at helping clients, yet struggle with anything remotely related to technology, whether it be inputting notes or organizing billing. The skills seem as compatible as oil and water.

“That’s exactly the difficulty we’re trying to tackle,” Shelly Tene Barkai, the CEO and co-founder of Philtech, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The partnership between Philtech, based in Tel Aviv, and the Senser Foundation, based outside of Chicago, has been thriving for years, evident by their successful Lean Digital Transformation program, which is on its fourth cohort helping nonprofits better incorporate technology. Their latest initiative, a HealthTech Hackathon, teaches Israeli and international nonprofits the potential of implementing AI into mental health services and will bring one winning initiative to fruition with eight months of guidance and a budget of $40,000.

Set to take place online between April 1 and 3, the hackathon will provide six or seven organizations consisting of three or four participants with lectures about mental health and the current usage of AI in the field. Each organization will connect with mentors who are experts in AI, mental health and “storytelling,” so the organization can learn to pitch its idea. Teams will develop their own mental health AI initiative, which they will present to judges. One organization will win.

Mental health has always been a focus for the Senser Foundation, but after Oct. 7, the need skyrocketed. Israel and America are in a mental health crisis, and there aren’t enough therapists to meet people’s needs. The goal of the hackathon isn’t to replace therapists, but support them and make their jobs easier, Amir Tal, chief scientist at Beit Ekstein and academic coordinator at The Samueli Initiative for Responsible AI in Medicine, told eJP. “We see AI not as artificial intelligence. It’s augmented intelligence.”

Many experts have already begun using AI to support mental health. The field is “much more developed than we anticipated at the beginning,” Tene Barkai said.

By using AI to filter through self-reported questionnaires, organizations can discover who’s urgently in need of services. Multilingual chatbots can provide support informed by dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. AI can ease therapists workload by transcribing sessions, researching interventions, aiding in billing and writing notes. AI can create multilingual promotional material to help destigmatize mental health. 

No one knows exactly what will come out of the hackathon, but everyone is excited to find out. It’s not about “how we see AI helping with mental health, but how the mental health profession sees that AI can help them,” Naomi Senser, representing the Senser Foundation, told eJP.

Even though there are “great advantages” to using AI, Tal said, “there are a lot of risks.” As one of the hackathon judges, he will make sure that all initiatives follow the principles set by the World Health Organization for ethical use of AI in health. These include protecting privacy, being inclusive, accountable and transparent. Its important initiatives are ethical from the beginning, he said, because “once you’ve got a product, it’s hard to do adjustments.”

Organizers know that not every nonprofit can have a staff member dedicated solely to tech, “but we do want to work with people who understand and have an affection to technology,” Tene Barkai said. While some companies may create something from scratch, others can duplicate AI initiatives that have been successfully implemented elsewhere.

The Senser Foundation and Philtech recently held two webinars featuring presentations by Tal and Shiran Mlamdovsky Somech, founder of Generative AI for Good. The sessions were open to the public and served as introductory lessons on how AI can augment mental health services. 

Over 110 people attended the webinars from 80 different organizations and foundations, and more than a dozen organizations have applied for the hackathon, half based in the United States, half based in Israel. Even if an organization doesn’t get in, Tene Barkai is confident that it will leave knowing new ways AI can benefit its agencies. These “breadcrumbs,” she said, will pay off in the future. 

Attaining the technology is only the first step. “It’s the organizational culture that needs to be changed,” Amit Marom, co-founder of Philtech, told eJP. The winning initiative will receive support bringing beneficiaries, employees and therapists on board. 

The Sensers are excited to see what attendees cook up, since the potential for implementing AI into mental health is in its early stages. “There may be other opportunities as we go forward for hackathons, either in this area or different areas,” Jerry Senser, representing the foundation, told eJP. Initiatives dreamed up at the hackathon will grow and mature over the years, he suggested. “This is really just the start.”