The world is changing every day. Technology is changing just as rapidly, and it’s becoming smarter and more useful with each iteration. One field that has struggled to adapt this new technology is behavioral health. While there are plenty of apps and websites that help monitor behavior and provide digital therapy, there is a lack of helpful information coming from concrete data. However, all of that may change with the help of our smartphones.

Who had the idea?

Two people are credited with this innovation: Rosalind Picard and Tom Insel. Picard was working at MIT when she noticed trends in data surrounding emotions. Although it was considered a career-ender, she took the initiative to write a thought piece about her findings. Just as you can measure the weather, Picard believes you can measure the likelihood of having increased sadness or anger. Picard is currently working on a system that helps people by taking this information and providing relevant alerts on ways they can counteract these feelings.
Insel, a mental health and neuroscience researcher, believes he can use his app, Mindstrong, to do something similar. The app will use information to predict whether or not the user will experience negative emotions, based on their interactions with other people and with various sites and apps. Mindstrong is not currently meant to be a therapy app, but would be used in conjunction with health networks and independent mental health professionals to help monitor their clients.

What would our smartphones track?

One problem Insel saw with his app’s method was an invasion of privacy. As a result, he plans not to use the phone’s microphone and camera features, and instead, primarily relies on the keyboard and touch information. Even within this there are restrictions. The app will only record individual words, not full phrases or sentences, allowing the users to have a level of privacy. The other primary feature (touch strength) does not invade privacy.

Who would this help?

An app like Insel’s could potentially help those with both medical and mental conditions, although the latter is the primary focus. Tracking word patterns or even phone usage patterns can help predict the onset of symptoms, and potentially even a relapse for recovering drug abuse patients. Picard’s app, on the other hand, could help anyone, as it is intended to be a short-term solution. I believe that both apps have the potential to help those in the behavioral health field, with diagnoses as well as treatment.
Very soon, we may walk around with a digital mental health tracker in our pockets. This may scare some people, but ultimately, it will help us better evaluate our patterns and help to increase the presence of positive ones while eliminating the negative. We may not be able to eradicate depression like Picard hopes, but I think we will definitely weaken it.