Surveillance – a new treatment for depression

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a revolution going on. The rise of the machines, you might call it, or perhaps technology on steroids.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the brave new world of healthcare, where technology-enabled clothing and accessories can monitor your heart rate, contact lenses can detect blood sugar for diabetics and robotic walking devices are just a tip-toe away from changing the lives of wheelchair users.

Recent research published in The Journal of Medical Research suggests that depression may soon be in on the act, with an app that gathers data from sufferers’ smartphones.

Forty participants were asked to complete an online health questionnaire, specifically designed to probe for symptoms of depression. They were then monitored over the course of two weeks, with the so-called ‘Purple Robot’ app gathering data on their phone usage and geographical location.

The results showed that those participants with symptoms of depression used their smartphone three times more often (an average of 68 minutes per day) than those who did not have depressive symptoms (an average of 17 minutes).

Furthermore, participants with depressive symptoms travelled to fewer locations than those without symptoms. Senior author, David Mohr, PhD, observed that ‘when people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don’t have have the energy or motivation to go out and do things’. Commenting on the findings he also said:

“[This] information could ultimately be used to monitor people who are at risk of depression, and to perhaps offer them interventions… or to deliver the information to their clinicians.”

So let’s get this straight. What’s being suggested here is to track the movements and phone calls of those at risk of depression, then submit their data to a third party, who (or which – don’t discount a computer interface) would then presumably verify a diagnosis and trigger treatment.

If you didn’t have depression to start with, odds are you would wind up with it, or, at the very least, a heightened sense of (justified) paranoia.

Though reliable figures for the incidence of depression are hard to come by, with anything between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 in Western countries afflicted, the scope for mass surveillance with a system like this would be irresistible to those in big government. Expect to see more funding making its way into research like this.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that depression, which can be difficult to diagnose and treat, and as individual as the experience, circumstances and temperament of the sufferer, requires a slightly lighter touch than this. Happily, it is impossible to reduce the spiritual to data points and app-fodder.

Written by Jacqui Hogan