Tech companies joining fight against mental illness
Thursday, August 31, 2017
Technology has become ubiquitous in the lives Americans today. With all eyes constantly glued to the either a computer or mobile screen, the internet has become the ultimate hub of information on all things, including mental health.
It is estimated that 16 million adults are currently struggling with depression, and "anxiety" and "stress" are common Google search words. Although people are frequently searching mental health topics online, recent research has found that only 50 percent of those struggling with mental health issues actually seek help.
In an effort to inspire action and spread knowledge, Google is teaming up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to guide those who search for depression-related terms to helpful resources and tools.
Active now, when a user in the U.S. searches the terms "depression" or "clinical depression" on Google while using their mobile device, the standard Knowledge Panel that appears when a user searches for information about diseases will appear. The Knowledge Panel will list general information about depression, but with an added element that users can click on to check if they are clinically depressed.
Once clicked, the user will be directed to a PHQ-9 questionnaire that is used by health professionals to diagnose clinical depression. Because the answers provided on the PHQ-9 are completely anonymous and only seen by the users themselves, the questionnaire is a self-evaluation tool to help users determine if they may need to seek help from a mental health care professional.
According to NAMI CEO Mary Giliberti, the average person struggling from depression lives with their symptoms for six to eight years before getting help, and Google and NAMI are aiming to change that with the implementation of this tool.
This attempt to reach depressed Americans through Google searches is just the latest in the usage of technology to reach those suffering from mental illness. Facebook implemented a system in 2015 for users to report messages that imply depression or suicidal thoughts by screenshotting the message and copying and pasting the link of the user's Facebook profile into the Report Suicidal Content application.
Once submitted, the Facebook safety team will review the post and then reach out to the user who posted the original message. The user will receive the following message from Facebook: "Hi _____, a friend thinks you might be going through something difficult and asked us to look at your recent post."
The user then has the option to click "Continue," which will lead them to a screen that offers the option to either talk to a helpline worker or get tips and support. The user also has the option to forgo both options by instead clicking "Skip." The option to receive help is ultimately left to the discretion of the user.
The popularity of Facebook coupled with the widespread digitization of all aspects of our lives today even has psychotherapists rethinking ways to get reach those who are struggling.
A team of researchers and psychotherapists from Stanford have developed a therapy chatbot called Woebot that communicates with users through Facebook Messenger. The robot is intended to be an alternative to visiting a therapist for those who cannot afford a weekly therapist visit or are reluctant to seek help in person because of the stigma associated with mental illness.
For $39 a month, Woebot messages users once a day to check in with their mental health status. Woebot focuses on using cognitive behavioral techniques to help users combat negative feelings. The robot may not be able to address complex questions or concerns, but it will direct the user toward a mental health professional if it senses a lack of improvement in mood over time.
These mental health tools are not meant be a replacement for speaking with a mental health professional, rather they provide useful information for those who do not know where to start. In these instances, technology simply provides resources rather than treating an illness.
If these new tools can help educate and guide the 56 percent of adults suffering from depression in silence, then they are doing their job. For now, there are no substitutes to seeing a physician or therapist to treat mental health issues, but the technological world is make an effort to prioritize mental health.
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