Can Depression be Detected by Analyzing Smartphone Data?

When I first stumbled upon this story I became interested for two reasons, firstly, sufferers all too often hide this illness from view, the “yes I’m fine” is a mantra which all too often covers a veil which is impossible to imagine. According to ball park stats, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression worldwide; this is the leading cause of disability on the planet. According to Mental Health UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a form of mental health related issue each year.

Secondly, it does not matter what your social standing is, how many cars you have or the wealth you have accumulated, this form of mental illness can still be developed and is indiscriminate regardless of status. Awareness is crucial and according to researchers at Northwestern University, a Smartphone’s sensor data can potentially detect depression by tracking the amount of minutes a person uses their phone per day and also how often they change their geographical location.

This study which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research on Wednesday, involved analysing the GPS locations and phone usage of a study group of 28 people over two weeks. Their locations were tracked every five minutes. The findings showed that the average daily usage for depressed people is 68 minutes; this was compared to just 17 minutes for non-depressed individuals. It was also found that there might be a link between the amount of geographical locations and depression; the fewer places a person visits could be an indicator of depression.

To explain the correlation between phone usage and possible depression, when a person is developing or at a high risk of this illness, they tend to withdraw, the more someone uses their phone alone without talking to for example friends, this may be an indicator. Participants in the two-week study also took a standardized questionnaire measuring levels of depression which was called a PHQ-9 survey. This asks about symptoms used to diagnose depression for example sadness and loss of interest in hobbies etc. The results were that 14 people out of the controlled group did not have any signs of depression while 14 did exhibit these signs which ranged from mild to severe.

In order to gain a better understanding of the correlation between Smartphone usage and depression, a bigger study is needed. What this study does highlight is the imperceptible fine line between regular socializing and withdrawing.

I am not going to end this article to patronize or lecture, if anyone is reading this who feels as if they are feeling more miserable than normal, or has thoughts which might be extreme, I would say just find someone, whether it be a friend, relative or a trusted person or professional, and talk to them. Never think it’s just you or bottle up your feelings. If you know of a friend or relative whose mood has changed or is acting differently, then the best thing you can do is be there for them.

Thank You RT and Mental Health Foundation UK for providing us with this information