Interview with Kai.ai’s Founder Alex Frenkel: How AI Can Be a Game Changer in Mental Health Support for Young People

How AI Can Be a Game Changer in Mental Health Support for Young People

It is normal to feel sad about things in life. Why not try and talk to an AI about it? 

We often have to deal with stress in our everyday life, such as academic studies, work, family or even our romantic relationships. Amid the devastating COVID pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in depression worldwide, especially among young people. In light of this, platforms aiming to improve the mental well-being of adolescents have been emerging, and one of them is Kai.ai. 

What is Kai.ai?

Soft-launched in January this year, Kai.ai is an AI-powered companion that helps adolescents, who are often persistently battling anxiety, depression and hopelessness, nurture a better sense of well-being. As of July, more than 125,000 young people actively used Kai, with half-a-million messages being sent to Kai each week. More than 20,000 people use the AI on a daily basis, and 15,000 surface and express gratitude to start their morning. 

“We’re focused on ongoing well-being because there is such an alarming shortage of therapists compared to the demand of mental health needs, and developing routine for positive reflection can help people feel more grounded,” said the CEO and Co-founder of Kai, Alex Frenkel. “We’re making sure that more people feel in control of their feelings and less people feel like they’re in isolation so that overall, crises can decrease and fulfillment can thrive.”      

Using therapeutic and coaching approaches, Kai helps users mitigate depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders and many other psychological stressors. The platform’s name, “Kai”, is simple but concise and meaningful, echoing the company’s mission of using technology to support the emotional well-being of people. Frenkel said, “‘Kai’ means the ocean in Hawaiian and recovery in Japanese. It also means being strong, happy and lovable in other cultures.” 

Why does Kai.ai focus on young people?

Kai focuses on high school and college students, of whom many are struggling with mental health issues. A study published in 2019 comparing mental health concerns across different age groups found that people below 25 years old had the highest depression rate, with the group of college-age adults (20-21) showing the sharpest increase. 

Moreover, in the past two years, as the world was dealing with the pandemic, waves and waves of lockdowns made therapy and counseling not as accessible as before. Yet, amid the Covid crisis, more than 44% of high school students in the U.S. persistently felt sad or hopeless. Kai, which provides mental healthcare services for users to use from home, has therefore stepped in on time to help those in need to walk through such difficult times. 

The founding story

Frenkel started as a clinical therapist working in clinics and at schools. During his work, he noticed the limitations in the traditional mental health resolution model, in which students would only pay for a few meetings with the therapist when they experience mental health problems. However, talking to therapists only occasionally is far from enough to tackle mental health issues.

In addition, he was aware that there were not enough therapists at most of the schools. Hence, students in need are only receiving limited care and support, reducing the consultation’s effectiveness and even causing their mental health to further deteriorate. 

Compared to seeking help from therapists, young people would feel less ashamed or scared of being judged for seeking help on an AI platform. Frenkel shared, “The younger generation trusts technology, and they can talk to the AI more comfortably.” All these have prompted Frenkel to launch Kai. to support people’s mental well-being, especially the youth, with an AI solution.

The working model behind Kai.ai

Built by a team of psychologists, engineers and content creators, Kai integrates scientifically proven techniques according to the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) model to help people identify their emotions and perform self-reflection. 

Kai echoes mental healthcare 3.0, a system that provides fully digital care or a hybrid of human and digital care. Kai asks users different questions to pause and reflect on their lives, such as, “Hey, good morning, how are you feeling this morning?” or “Tell me something that you have in your life today.” Users can reply to the prompts, and it will remember the information that they have told the AI, building a long term relationship between the user and the AI. Besides allowing for a more personalized interaction experience, these daily questions can also help users build the habit of working on their mental well-being every day. 

What makes Kai.ai different?

There are many aspects of Kai that make it different from other mental health companies and other AI bots.

The first is in the way the product is made available. Instead of downloading an app, users, or Kai-ers, can access Kai on messaging platforms popular among young people—iMessage, Discord, WhatsApp and Telegram. Kai functions just like a contact in someone’s messaging list. It meets the person where they are at. 

On the mental healthcare side, unlike other telehealth companies, Kai is not offering a formal health service. Rather, it provides users with an ongoing experience to find a better sense of base-layer well-being. According to Frenkel, typical telehealth companies usually connect users with a therapist via video calls. However, with Kai, the user starts the journey with a simple question—“How happy are you now?” Then, the platform will help the users perform an initial assessment of the happiness score to evaluate their happiness level. 

In terms of quality assurance, Kai stands out by taking the way it measures impact very seriously. The team isn’t just focused on adoption and engagement but also being able to help people feel better from using the AI. “Kai is the only company that utilizes the World Health Organization Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5),” said Frenkel. 

WHO-5 is a short self-reported measure of current mental well-being. Users will answer five statements using a scale of one to five, and the final score represents the mental status of the user at the moment, with 0 and 100 being the worst and the best imaginable well-being. Using the WHO-5 well-being questionnaire, a study found that users’ well-being improved from an average of poor well-being to an acceptable well-being score after using Kai for four months. This shows Kai’s capability to improve users’ mental health.

Frenkel also added, “While interacting with Kai, the responses given by Kai also contain psychological theories.” Indirectly, teenagers can also learn about psychology by interacting with Kai.

Future plans of Kai.ai

A successful business, Kai has a brilliant vision for its future. Frenkel declared, “Kai would continue to grow and support millions of people’s mental health worldwide.” Currently, Kai mainly focuses on its U.S. audience, and the AI only speaks English. 

To broaden the user demographic, Kai is looking to support other age groups and expand its language offerings to reach people from non-English speaking countries as well. Furthermore, considering the growing popularity of the metaverse recently, Kai is planning to launch as a metaverse character to interact with users beyond texts.

As per Frenkel, maintaining happiness takes work and effort, and living happily is a life-long task with countless ups and downs. The first step towards that goal is to slow down and reflect on our lives from time to time. By being mindful and grateful for what we have and how powerful we have become, we will harness the abilities to tackle adversities in the future. 

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Header image courtesy of Kai.ai

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