The newest mental health tool may be your smartphone.
Smartphones now have the ability to monitor and track broad swaths of human activity, from the sound of your voice to your heartbeat to breathing patterns — without running down the battery. A new crop of phone apps is beginning to take advantage of this futuristic technology for mental health.
In what may be the most sophisticated application yet, researchers at Dartmouth have developed StudentLife, an Android app. In a pilot study, the app worked continuously, sensing and recording a test group of 48 students’ activities during a 10-week school term. Using various sensors in the phone, such as its microphone, the app was able to tell how much social activity students engaged in and gather information about travel and sleep patterns. The data correlated with standard psychiatric measures of depression and stress administered to the students — and even their grades. The researchers are conducting further tests of the app at other college campuses and say they may incorporate feedback intended to encourage positive behavior into future versions.
Such detailed access to personal information has many privacy advocates concerned — and any use for healthcare will have to comply with strict federal health privacy laws in the United States. Yet access to “lifelogging” data can have positive benefits as well.
In their paper describing StudentLife, the Dartmouth researchers noted that two students ran into academic difficulty during the term, missing classes and failing to turn in work. Because the professor running the study had access to the students’ sensing data, which presumably indicated emotional distress, he did not fail the students, while their professors for other classes did. The choice allowed the students to return for the following term, when they would otherwise have been suspended. Such data-logging apps could give medical care providers incredible insight into those they are responsible for, leading to similarly sensitive, tailored responses.
Commercial adoption is also likely just around the corner. In a 2014 PriceWaterhouseCoopers study of 1,000 healthcare providers, 40 percent said they monitor their patients’ with data from a phone app, wearable technology, or other medical device. And 14 percent said they receive data from mobile apps patients use to track their own data.
One company, Ginger.io, is developing apps that monitor mood and physical health indicators for health care patients and can alert medical care providers if something is awry. Another, SelfEcho, is developing smartphone monitoring programs for corporate wellness and mental health treatment.
Smartphone technology may even be creating new measures of well-being. Beyond Verbal, which calls itself an “emotional analytics” company, works with smartphones’ recording technology. The company has collected and analyzed thousands of voice samples and claims to be able to deduce emotional state and personality characteristics from tone of voice alone. The company is developing commercial applications for the product. In the meantime, you can test out the technology with the company’s Moodies app for iPhone or Android.
For personal use, mood-monitoring apps are still cutting edge, but are likely to begin multiplying. Here are a few current standouts.
April 16, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN