Full text of AI engineer Aneysha Bhat’s talk titled “Anxiety: A Cancer of the Mind” at TEDxUIUC conference. In this talk, Aneysha, the co-founder of TenseSense, explores the prevalence of anxiety and how we can stand together to fight the stigma associated with mental health.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Aneysha Bhat – Co-innovator of TenseSense
I’d like to begin by asking you to close your eyes.
Imagine that you’ve just come home from work. You want to relax. You sit down on the couch and just breathe. You look to the side, and you realize that it’s raining.
And then you look again to the window and see that the window is open. You think – at first everything is calm. But then, everything goes haywire.
“What if my floors get damaged? What if the rain damage affects my entire apartment? What if there’s a flood? What if I have to move? What if … “
Your thoughts are blinding. Your mind is racing. Your heart is beating right out of your chest. Your thoughts are just everywhere. And then, you lose it all.
Now, I have something to tell you. Anxiety sucks.
But do you know what the worst part about it is? It’s not the dizziness or the palpitations or the excessive overthinking. No. It’s the stereotype that goes with it.
Mental illness has a stigma associated with it. Think about it. We’re fixated on this idea that mental illness is associated with incompetence, fragility, failure. When a friend or a loved one is having a moment of vulnerability, we say that it’s a “mental breakdown.” When they’re having issues or when they’re having struggles, we call that “crazy.”
And it’s true. Why? Because mental health has a stigma.
We consider mental illnesses to be burdens, traits of people that make them undesirable, less important, less valuable. And this is a huge problem.
If we continue to treat mental health like this, we’ll never be able to understand our loved ones. We’ll never be able to understand those who need our help.
And so when you leave this talk today, I want you to realize one thing. You have the ability to save and impact a life by the way you treat others.
Now, I believe that it’s time to change the way we think about mental health. We have ways to identify glucose levels and pregnancy hormones. But what about anxiety? Why don’t we have a way to detect elevated stress levels? Everybody gets anxious, right?
We get anxious because we don’t know what will happen. We’re afraid. We’re scared. Fear is normal. In fact, it’s evolutionary. But when we worry excessively, when we get so scared, we develop anxiety.
But, okay, everybody gets anxious. Instead of creating a stereotype about it, instead of making a stigma, what if we tried to make a change?
There are 40 million Americans who live with anxiety currently. That’s one-eighth of the population who feels alone, misunderstood, unsure about who to talk to, how to get help.
Do you know what’s worse? 35% to 50% of those cases go undiagnosed. That’s up to 20 million people who don’t get the care that they need.
Now, this is a huge problem. So if we think about biomedical advancements, what’s the first thing that comes to our mind? Cancer. If cancer goes undiagnosed or even untreated, the problems build up on themselves, leading to a cascade of cellular trauma that results in fatality.
Anxiety is a cancer of the mind. It’s something that eats at the conscience. It’s something that weakens the heart and destroys the self, something that leaves you feeling empty, feeling alone, like there’s no one to help you, like there’s no one to understand you.
And it’s about time we fight this problem. It’s about time we find a way to detect anxiety. So research has shown that there are specific biomarkers – or proteins, enzymes and hormones – that float freely in bodily fluids like blood, urine and saliva.
So, basically, what we can do is we can measure these concentrations of the biomarkers and, theoretically, that would allow us to detect anxiety levels. And we can aid in the prognosis, or the clinical identification of anxiety.
So what do I do?
I work with a team of bioengineers here, and we have developed and innovated a way to identify anxiety levels using this: this is TenseSense. This is a biomedical device through which we can detect elevated stress levels. This device can tell you if you have anxiety levels, if you have elevated stress levels, and it can help diagnose anxiety and provide further recommended care, further treatments for patients across the nation.
So why did we create this device?
All right. So we’re going to take a quick poll. Audience participation. All right? Raise your hand if you’re a working individual or if you are a student. All right. Of what I can see, that’s like everyone. All right. Okay.
So now raise your hand if you’ve ever been stressed. That’s like two hands from me and both legs. Look around you. We have different ages, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different genders. But something unites us all. We all get stressed. We all get anxious. But in different ways.
Dealing with anxiety is no easy feat. And anxiety affects us all but in different ways. What works for you may not work for me. And it’s for this reason that it’s so important to find a way to detect your stress levels, find a way to help you, the patient, and tell doctors what will work for you given your daily routines, your genetic history.
We want to serve you, the patient. Look around you. We are surrounded by some of the brightest minds. I may know the next Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the next revolutionary engineers, the doctor who will cure cancer. In an academic environment like this one, we’re surrounded by inspiration and excellence everywhere we go.
But unfortunately, this comes at a price. There are over 17 million people in this country attending a higher-education institution like this one. And across the board, the most commonly diagnosed mental illness? Anxiety.
Now, as a student, I get stressed. We all get stressed. Amid the deadlines, projects, exams, homework assignments, conferences, we all get stressed, we all get anxious.
Now, the more we get anxious, the more we get stressed, the greater toll it takes on our body. Research has shown that anxiety actually changes the way our brain functions; it changes the brain itself. Anxiety results in changes in the gray and white matter of our brain, changes in the functionality of the amygdala, the center of the brain responsible for emotional cognition and decision-making, two very important things.
Now, your brain is your brain. Your heart is your heart. And that’s why it’s so important for the identification of stress levels to be entirely your own.
Now, the problem with the state of the art is that no current technique exists. There’s no way to real-time detect anxiety levels, no way to tell what your stress levels are at the point of care. And that, too, quantitatively.
So, okay. Why is it a problem? So right now, in the mental health care industry, we spent over $148 billion. And approximately one-third of that total, $42 billion, is spent on anxiety cases alone.
Anxiety patients, according to anxietycenter.org, are three to five times more likely to visit the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for an anxiety-related condition.
Okay, so right now, sure, we can diagnose anxiety. But how do we do that? Diagnosis of anxiety happens in two ways. One, through the DSM. The DSM is a diagnostic manual that attempts to narrowly categorize diverse experiences of patients.
The second way is through the Penn State Worry Questionnaire, a list of 16 questions filled with big statements like, “My worries overwhelm me,” and – I personally like this one – “I tend not to worry about things.”
Now, I’m a bioengineer, and so as an engineer, I have two problems with this. One, that it’s heavily biased. And two, it’s ancient. We’re in an age of technological advancement, especially in biomedicine.
And all we have to diagnose one of the most prevalent mental health conditions is a book and a high school-level questionnaire. That’s problem number one.
Problem number two is the cost. Initial psychiatric evaluations can cost up to $300 for a patient. And during this psychiatric evaluation, a blood test can be ordered. But a blood test can cost up to $1,500 for an uninsured patient, and it takes up to a week to process results. That’s one week’s time where the clinician can provide no insight, no help and no understanding to the patient about what to do or how to help.
This is expensive, inefficient and unacceptable.
So, okay, let’s say that we already have a patient diagnosed with anxiety, as is the case with 6.8 million Americans. So, too often we have cases in mental health where we have misdiagnoses or we have ineffective dosages. At best, this is irrelevant. But at worst, this is deadly.
Wouldn’t you want to know if there was a way to test your diagnostics, identify your stress levels, in less than five minutes at less than five percent of the cost?
Wouldn’t you want to know if the medication you’ve been prescribed will work on your body? So with the implementation of such a device, we can.
From a saliva sample, we can analyze biomarkers in the saliva and we can find concentrations related to elevated stress levels. Basically, what we can do is we can determine elevated stress levels relative to baseline – if it’s higher or lower relative to normal. And we can recommend further care, helping physicians nationwide, helping patients nationwide.
This way we can not only qualitatively but also quantitatively tell you what your stress levels are, monitor changes over time and provide you with the medical attention and the personalized care that you need.
Now, this is something that’s never been done before, especially in the field of mental health. Personalized medicine is so important. It’s what will allow us to make medicines for you, care for you, the patient, and provide all of our resources, all of our help, for you.
Mental health is an enigma. Countless diagnoses have been made qualitatively with no quantitative results to back them up. For the first time, we’re introducing not only a way to quantify stress levels but also a way to do it in real time so that we can know within five minutes what your elevated stress levels are and how we can help you immediately.
We are bringing personalized medicine to the uncharted territory of mental health. Now, the movement towards personalized medicine is one that’s funded by both the FDA and the NIH, the National Institutes of Health.
Our device right now, within the next year, seeks to conduct clinical trials as well as gain FDA approval. With personalized care in mental health, we’ll be able to increase our preventative care, we’ll be able to help patients nationwide, we’ll be able to give people the help that they need.
Personalized medicine has the ability to improve lives everywhere. And mental health awareness is really important. If we stand up for mental health, we’re standing up for each other. We’re standing up for a better society, a stronger society, a more progressive society.
We’re standing up against a stigma, a problem, a stereotype. We’re standing up for each other. And we’re standing up together to fight anxiety. It’s time to find a way out.
It’s time to show people that together we can stand up and fight anxiety and we can stand up and fight for mental health.
Now, before I finish, I’d like to take a moment to thank my team, without whom I wouldn’t be here. Ayako Ohoka, Margaret Barbero and Karthik Balakrishnan.
And I’d also like to thank our advisors, Professor Dipanjan Pan as well as Drs. Mishra and Khan.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank my parents, who are sitting over here. Without their help and without their support, I wouldn’t be here today.
So thank you.
Resources for Further Reading:
Billy Graham: Who is Jesus, Really? (Full Transcript)