Can a smartphone, which already knows so much about us, be used to monitor the mental health status of patients? This sounds far-fetched, but as I think about all the ways my smartphone knows me and my behavior, this doesn’t seem that unrealistic:
“The force they hope to harness is the power of daily behavior, trackable through smartphone use, to reflect one’s mental health. As people start to slide into depression, for instance, they may do several of the following things easily sensed by a phone’s microphones, accelerometers, GPS units, and keyboards: They may talk with fewer people; and when they talk, they may speak more slowly, say less, and use clumsier sentences and a smaller vocabulary. They may return fewer calls, texts, emails, Twitter direct messages, and Facebook messages. They may pick up the phone more slowly, if they pick up at all, and they may spend more time at home and go fewer places. They may sleep differently. Someone slipping toward a psychotic state might show similar signs, as well as particular changes in syntax, speech rhythm, and movement.
Insel says such data provide “a more objective, textured picture of people’s lives,” one collected continuously, rather than just at weekly sessions. (A therapist, the joke goes, knows in great detail how a patient is doing every Thursday at 3 o’clock.) With inputs like these, a phone could sense the beginning of a crisis and trigger an appropriate response. Because this response would come earlier, it could be more measured, less jarring, and less medication-heavy. “The earlier you intervene, the better the outcomes,” Insel says. “Instead of detect and treat, it’s predict and pre-empt.”
It’s a little creepy, admittedly, but can it help? As the article also points out, there simply aren’t enough therapists in the world to effectively monitor and treat everyone dealing with depression and other mental health conditions. Also, while mortality rates for just about every physical illness have gone down, the rates of suicide and disability due to mental health conditions, have not. Clearly, we don’t have all the answers, and we need to do better. If someone wants to figure out a way to use technology to help, why not?