Novel mHealth app detects depression

Passive app requires ‘no effort on the part of the user’

Feeling down?
Your smartphone will most likely know before you or your doctors do, after a recent study showed promise for an mHealth app that detects depression and monitors at-risk populations.
Researchers at Northwestern University’s department of preventive medicine have developed a novel mobile health application that aims to take on a disorder affecting 16 million adult Americans each year, one that costs the economy a whopping $210.5 billion.

Better yet, the app they’re calling Purple Robot, goes beyond the majority of depression apps available to consumers today.
It requires absolutely “no effort on the part of the user,” David Mohr, director of Northwestern’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, said in a statement.
“The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions.”

How can researchers tell, exactly, if the smartphone user is indeed showing signs of depression?
Purple Robot monitors phone use – data suggests the more you’re using the phone, the higher the chances you’re depressed.

“People are likely, when on their phones, to avoid thinking about things that are troubling, painful feelings or difficult relationships,” Mohr added.

The app also looks at the user’s daily geographical locations.
Is the individual spending the lion’s share of their time at home?
Do they have infrequent travel patterns?
These two factors also correlated with symptoms of depression in the study, researchers pointed out.

In fact, after following a group of 40 adult participants, they found that the Purple Robot application was even more accurate and reliable in detecting signs of depression than the daily questions study participants were asking regarding their current mood.

The ultimate goal of the study, as Sohrob Saeb, research fellow and computer scientist at CBITS, pointed out: population health.
“We will see if we can reduce symptoms of depression by encouraging people to visit more locations throughout the day, have a more regular routine, spend more time in a variety of places or reduce mobile phone use,” Saeb said. 

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