Artificial Intelligence: The Next Mental Health Crisis?

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Artificial Intelligence: The Next Mental Health Crisis? Will AI cause a new wave of mental health disorders? The Answers may surprise you.

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Ah, the modern world, moving towards humanity’s long sought after eutopia. For as long as humans have had the ability to innovate, they have dreamed of living a life where something, anything would make their worlds a breeze.

Well, it’s 2023 and we may have finally found our long-awaited hero. Artificial intelligence or AI for short. This year, AI made its first major attack on humans and with that, may well be the first assault on our mental wellness. As if there weren’t enough modern amenities decaying our happiness, am I right? Things like social media. What was supposed to unite the world has now successfully divided it.

So much so, that it has created a world full of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders just to name a few. And to think, I haven’t even brought up the addictive algorithms that keep our necks angled down, lost in our devices.

Social media trending mindset.

While the answer remains to be seen, my prediction is that AI will indeed add to the explosion of mental illness worldwide. How? I predict, and this should be obvious to see, is that millions of people will lose their jobs. We know that job loss is absolutely brutal on people.

Indeed, the mental health effects of job loss can be significant and multifaceted, impacting people across various dimensions of their well-being. First and foremost, job loss often leads to financial stress, which can exacerbate mental health issues or cause new ones to arise. The anxiety and uncertainty about the future, including worries about paying bills or supporting a family, can take a severe toll. Additionally, employment often provides a sense of purpose and identity, and losing a job can trigger feelings of worthlessness and depression.

Moreover, the loss of daily structure and routine that comes with unemployment can lead to feelings of disorientation and aimlessness, making it more challenging to cope with the situation. Social isolation can also become a problem, particularly if a person’s social network was largely based on their job. The stigma associated with unemployment can further compound these issues, leading to shame and decreased self-esteem.

Here’s a list summarizing some of the key mental health effects of job loss:

  1. Increased Anxiety: Financial uncertainty can exacerbate anxiety levels.
  2. Depression: Job loss can trigger feelings of worthlessness and depression due to the loss of identity and purpose.
  3. Disorientation: The loss of daily routine can lead to a sense of disorientation and aimlessness.
  4. Social Isolation: If a person’s social network was tied to their job, they may experience isolation after losing it.
  5. Lower Self-Esteem: The stigma associated with unemployment can lead to decreased self-esteem and self-worth.
  6. Increased Stress: The combined effects of financial uncertainty, loss of routine, and social isolation can lead to increased stress.
  7. Potential Substance Abuse: Some individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism, increasing the risk of substance abuse disorders.

If job loss wasn’t going to be chaotic enough, AI’s timeline is or will introduce humans to yet another option for addiction. Below is my prediction for how things will go but first we must understand how addiction works in the brain.

Firstly, we have a reward centre within the brain that helps us decide whether something is worth repeating. Very handy when tribes were small and the need for survival was king. For instance, when people discovered fire, it may have gone something like:

“It feels good to be warm around this fire, let’s do this again so we don’t all freeze.”

With the discovery of fire, humans became accustomed to being warmer at night. While not an example of addiction, it nonetheless shows why the reward centre was necessary for our survival. In short, less people may have died during colder periods, thereby leaving the tribe strong and thus the odds of survival were increased. I mean why wouldn’t you want to repeat the process if heating up sticks to produce flame over and over made you feel good and made your community strong?

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Yes, the reward centre has probably saved countless lives. However, we are a bit like electricity in the way that we are wired for the path of least resistance. In other words, why walk when you can bike and why bike when you can drive?

So, with the advent of modern times, came the consequence for the path of least resistance approach. No longer are we so worried about where our next meal is coming from; where we will sleep at night; and how we are going to keep the tribe going. Now, the path of least resistance is decimating our physical and mental health. Many of us, will for instance, seek the couch rather than the gym; eat out rather than cook at home, and pay bills with the tap of a button. No need for going to the mailbox

Case in point. Our path to utopia has led to the invention of foods, while readily available, they hold little nutritional value. We know that the Western diet, for example, plays a predominant role in both obesity, mental health, and addiction.

Read: 5 ways to maximize your mental health.

More on the western diet

There is growing evidence to suggest that the Western diet, which is high in processed and sugary foods, may be addictive. Studies have shown that consuming these types of foods can lead to changes in brain chemistry and behavior similar to those seen in drug addiction.

One of the main culprits in the Western diet is sugar, which has been shown to activate the same reward centers in the brain as drugs like cocaine. This can lead to cravings and compulsive overeating, even in the face of negative consequences like weight gain and poor health.

In addition to sugar, the Western diet is also high in unhealthy fats, refined grains, and other processed ingredients that can contribute to addiction and poor health outcomes. While more research is needed to fully understand the addictive properties of the Western diet, there is mounting evidence that our modern food environment may be contributing to a growing public health crisis.

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Ironically, what was supposed to make our lives easier, and move us to the promised land, has killed countless people. My point here is that the path of least resistance always comes with a consequence far worse than we anticipate. That’s why I feel like everything we “enjoy” is the opposite of what we need. Personally, I feel that the fundamental difference is intentional engineering. Or to put it another way, modern foods are designed to keep you eating it. What’s the best way to do this? Hijack your reward centre and keep you coming back for more.

If you look closely, you will see that this is the gold standard in the marketing of most products is – keep tickling the reward centre to keep you buying, scrolling or being envious of others. Which by the way, can all cause depression.

Food For thought

We are sold on the idea that materialistic things are the road to happiness, but this is a myth. Because you are a social creature, you will find happiness in the investment in those you love (emotional investment) Not in new shiny something or others. (Material accumulation).

What does all this have to do with AI?

While it may not seem obvious, the connection between our reward centre, AI, and our path of least resistance, has the potential to be harmful. Why? Because of one phenomenon, which is a manifestation of our reward system – addiction.

Note: Addiction is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. In this post we are focusing on but one element of it. To learn more about addiction, see resources at the end of this article.

Understanding the Basics of Addiction.

Addiction is a complex process that involves several mechanisms in the brain, including the reward system, neurotransmitters, and neural plasticity. Here are some of the key steps in this process:

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Initial Use and Pleasure Response: When a person first uses a substance like alcohol or drugs, or engages in an activity like gambling, the brain’s reward system is activated. This system includes areas such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex. These areas are responsible for processing feelings of pleasure and reward.

Dopamine Release: The activation of the reward system leads to the release of neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine. Dopamine is often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter because it is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. The intense pleasure that comes with the dopamine release can lead to a strong desire to repeat the behavior.

More on Addiction here

Tolerance Development: With repeated use of the substance or engagement in the behavior, the brain starts to adapt. This is partly due to a process called downregulation, where the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors in response to the excessive dopamine. As a result, the person needs to use more of the substance or engage in the behavior more frequently to achieve the same dopamine high. This is known as developing tolerance.

Dependence and Withdrawal: As the person continues to use the substance or engage in the behavior, their brain becomes more and more dependent on it to function normally. If they try to stop, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can include physical symptoms like nausea and restlessness, as well as psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression.

But it’s my choice. when it comes to addiction – probably not.

Compulsion and Loss of Control: At this point, the person may find it very difficult to stop using the substance or engaging in the behavior, even if they want to and even if it’s causing negative consequences in their life. This is partly because the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control and decision making, may be impaired by the repeated substance use or behavior. The person may feel a compulsion to use the substance or engage in the behavior, and they may have a hard time controlling this compulsion.

Neuroplastic Changes: Over time, addiction can lead to long-term changes in the brain’s structure and function, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. These changes can affect everything from memory and learning to stress response and mood. They can make it even harder for the person to quit and can contribute to the risk of relapse even after long periods of abstinence.

This is a simplified overview of a very complex process. There are also many factors, including genetics, environment, and mental health, which can influence how and why addiction develops in a particular individual.

The AI/Mental Health Connection.

You may be saying to yourself, “Jonathan, how can AI possibly be harming our mental health?” Sure, it can write blog posts for us, create apps which we can use to make money with, and we can even make a mental wellness care plan with it. Buuuut remember, this is only the beginning. It makes us feel good now because it’s making our lives easier. Or if you will, it’s providing us with the path of least resistance. So, it feels good. I mean it is a very busy world after all. Easy is better, right? Well, from my perspective, the answer is this path is the perfect weapon against our mental health.

Therefore, as a trained addictions counsellor, I see AI differently. At least in terms of its potential harms. For example, most addiction begins with a “feeling good” element. A drug makes you feel wonderful and therefore, you actively seek more of it. Eventually though, you need more of it to achieve that euphoria. And before you know it, it’s got you in its grip.

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While I’m not suggesting that using AI will become addictive, what I am suggesting is that by making our lives too easy, it will lead to more mental illness. As discussed above, the potential for mass layoffs is scary. What’s worse is there will be a shift in the job market, such that it will make it hard to “just get another job.”

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So, what’s the consequence of allowing AI to “make our lives easier?” Well aside from the obvious, failing to pay our bills, not being able to buy food etc, we will be stuck in the great unknown zone.

A place where humans don’t exactly thrive. See, uncertainty produces anxiety because we can’t predict what’s going to happen next. That’s why routine is so important for us to thrive.

Since we have a well-established behaviour pattern of keeping people buying, scrolling, or otherwise engaged in what we use, (manufactured addiction), I think we will see a “keep using AI formulation that will demand more and more of us. In turn we may see yet more and more people with addictive-like behaviours.

So, here’s my warning. If we keep adding levels of manufactured addiction to a society with high-unemployment rates, we are likely to see a pure path of human resistance. (Riots, violence, theft, etc.)  You can’t addict a nation and have them unemployed, it’s a recipe for disaster. So, let’s not make the same mistake with AI.

Finally, if we want a healthy, happy, and well-adjusted society, we must take personal responsibility and do the opposite of what we are doing today – at least the majority of the time. So, get away from social media, write your own blogs most of the time and walk every day. If you do, all your efforts will make you healthier, happier and of better mental health.

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Jonathan Arenburg

Jonathan Reginald-Nixon Arenburg (Born January 14, 1976) is a Canadian mental health blogger, speaker, and published author. Retired from the fire service and long-term care fields, he has written and self-published an autobiographical account of his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and more recently, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Titled, The Road To Mental Wellness, he wrote it for what he calls “therapeutic release.” He published it in hopes it would help others going through similar mental health conditions. The sales of The Road To Mental Wellness have been steady selling over 300 copies since its release on October 10, 2021(World Mental Health Day). Arenburg has also been involved in a collaborative publication Called Lemonade Stand Volume III, a book featuring 20 authors who bravely tell their stories of PTSD. All authors where from the military and or emergency services. Published by Joshua Rivedal and Kathleen Myers for the i’Mpossible project, a mental health advocacy organization. Jonathan has also appeared on several mental health podcasts including The Depression Files, A New Dawn, and The Above Ground Podcast Arenburg has also consulted with the Government of Nova Scotia and the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, the Honorable Brian Comer and Candidates for the New Democratic Party of Canada, on improving the mental health care system in Canada. Additionally, Jonathan was recognized in The Nova Scotia Legislature by the Honorable, Chris Palmer, Kings-North MLA, for his Book, The Road To Mental Wellness, his fight to make the mental health care system better. In addition, Chis acknowledged the support he gives to others.

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