Is this a good thing or bad thing ?

Google wants to monitor your mental health. You should welcome it into your mind

The use of technology to track and treat mental illness is deeply worrying but sadly necessary

Next week, Dr Tom Insel leaves his post as head of the US National Institute of Mental Health, a job that made him America’s top mental health doctor. Dr Insel is a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist and a leading authority on both the medicine and public policies needed to deal with problems of the mind. He’s 64 but he’s not retiring. He’s going to work for Google.It’s not alone. Apple, IBM and Intel are among technology companies exploring the same field. IBM this year carried out research with Columbia University that suggested computer analysis of speech patterns can more accurately predict the onset of psychosis than conventional tests involving blood samples or brain scans. Other researchers theorise that a person’s internet search history or even shopping habits (so handily recorded by your innocuous loyalty card) can identify the first signs of mental illness. Computers can now tell when something is about to go terribly wrong in someone’s mind.

 We now live in a world where your phone might observe you to help assess your mental health.”

Wearable technology has been a hot topic in medical innovation for several years now. A growing number of people choose to track their own physical condition using FitBits, Jawbones and other activity trackers, tiny wearable devices that monitor your movements, pulse rate, sleep patterns and more. Once the preserve of obsessive fitness fanatics, “self-monitoring” has the scope to transform healthcare. The ever-increasing number of people with chronic conditions can track and electronically report their symptoms, reducing the number of routine (and expensive) consultations they need with medical staff and ensuring a quicker response to changes that do require direct professional attention.

Self-monitoring will also surely play a bigger role in preventive public health. Wearing a pedometer that counts the number of steps you take in a day has been shown to spur people to walk more. What would happen to your consumption of alcohol and sugar if a device strapped to your wrist displayed a continuous count of your calorie and unit intake for the week?

Dr Insel is part of a school of thought that suggests this technology is even better suited to mental health. The symptoms of depression, for instance, are inconstant, ebbing and rising without obvious pattern. A short consultation with a doctor once every few weeks is thus a poor means of diagnosis. But wearable technology allows continuous monitoring. A small portable device might monitor your tone of voice, speech patterns and physical movements, picking up the early signs of trouble. A device such as a mobile telephone.

Yes, we now live in a world where your phone might observe you to help assess your mental health. If you don’t find that prospect disturbing, you’re either fantastically trusting of companies and governments or you haven’t thought about it enough.

But that feeling of unease should not determine our response to technology in mental health. In fact, we should embrace and encourage the tech giants as they seek to chart the mind and its frailties, albeit on the condition that we can overcome the enormous challenge of devising rules and regulations protecting privacy and consent.

Because, simply, existing healthcare systems are failing and will continue to fail on mental health. Even if the current model of funding the NHS was sustainable, the stigma that prevents us discussing mental health problems would ensure their prevention and treatment got a disproportionately small slice of the pie.

We pour ever more billions into dealing with the worst problems of physical health, and with considerable success. Death rates from cancer and heart disease have fallen markedly over the last 40 years. Over the same period, suicide rates have gone up.

Even as the NHS budget grows, NHS trusts’ spending on mental health is falling. If someone with cancer went untreated, we’d say it was a scandal. Some estimates suggest one in five people who need “talking therapies” don’t get them. In a rare bit of enlightened thinking, some NHS trusts are supporting Big White Wall, an online service where people can anonymously report stress, anxiety and depression, take simple clinical tests and talk to therapists.

Technology will never be a panacea for mental illnesses, or our social failure to face up to them. But anything that makes them cheaper and easier and more mundane to deal with should be encouraged.

If you think the idea of Google assessing your state of mind and your phone monitoring you for depression is worrying, you’re right. But what’s more worrying is that allowing these things is the least bad option on mental health.

Troubled youths: hospitals have treated 18,037 girls and 4,623 boys in the past year (picture posed by a model)

Our mental health services are one of the great scandals of our time’  Photo: Getty Images

One Response

  1. The scandal is that sociopaths so dominate political life, that “mental health” isn’t always defined in terms of the patient’s life, health, and happiness.

    The mental acuity to recognize in advance, that Martha Stewart was panicking but Bernard Madoff was brazenly stealing, was not present. Stewart went to prison for selling her stock. A year after she got out, everyone who didn’t panic and hung on, was significantly richer. At the very same time, Bernard Madoff’s scam went completely undetected. In hindsight, we can see the Madoff crime for what it is, and the Stewart conviction for what it isn’t.

    Yet, people who complain about the political system that makes these scams possible, are marginalized. We’re told we are paranoid. Imagining things.

    In short, if my financial judgment is to call a crony of the politically-connected, dishonest, my judgment necessarily must be held in error. Whereas if I join the anvil chorus and proclaim that some critic of the Crony State, must be obsessed with his or her sexual inadequacy and therefore criticizes Establishment cronies and for that reason must not be heard…the Crony State tells me I am sane.

    Thus, the challenge in mental health is one of definitions.

    If we defined mental illness solely as a personal problem…if the test of whether treatment was working, was that the patient feels better… we’d get somewhere. Allowing the gang of sociopaths who are in control, to define a “healthy” person as one who obeys the sociopaths without question, and an “unhealthy” person as one who questions or disobeys, will continue to produce a lot of impoverished and miserable people, much as it always has. Albeit with a few technological wrinkles.

    According to Bay Area urban legend, Google happened when two computer geeks drank a bottle of vodka and smoked some cannabis, had trouble remembering what they were trying to tell one another, and started speculating on how to teach a computer to figure out what one was going to say. Then after they sobered up, decided that was a pretty good idea, and built one that guessed at the sentence one was typing, before one finished it.

    I don’t know how accurate the urban legend is, but the trick Page and Brin invented, made them a lot of money and helped a lot of people to find information.

    An early-warning system that alerts my family that I might be having a stroke, could be a lifesaver.

    An early-warning system that warns crooks that I’m about to discover them, would be very helpful to the crooks and harmful to their victims.

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