Smart Phone Apps and Wearables Used to Predict Mental Health Disorders

May 23, 2018

Increasingly popular smart phones and wearables can be used to help clinicians identify early warning signs of common mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and stress and monitor the success of treatment.

Used by millions of Australians every day, new research by Flinders University has found wearable technology such as smart watches and smart phone apps could be an effective tool in improving the treatment of mental health disorders- by increasing the chances of early detection.

Typically used to track physical activity or simply worn as a fashion statement, smart watches for example have the potential to provide real-time indicators of how someone is functioning, which could identify worsening mental health.

The study, led by Dr Alissa Knight and Flinders Associate Professor Niranjan Bidargaddi, aimed to revolutionise the way clinicians approach treating mental illness.

“This study shows there is scope to incorporate wearable technology and smart phone apps into mental healthcare, providing an opportunity for early intervention by clinicians at little to no cost.”  Dr Knight says.

“Watches and tracking apps are unique in that they can provide data on a person’s daily behaviour and mental state in real-time. This study tested whether smart technology can also provide updates about someone’s mental health, while also allowing users to track their own wellbeing if they choose to do so.”

Results showed disruptions in routine physical activity over an extended period of time might be a reliable indicator of changes in a person’s mental condition.

With large numbers of mental health sufferers reluctant to seek out treatment, early diagnosis can be difficult, but digital wearables and apps are showing they could be used as an effective screening method.

“Traditionally it has been difficult to get an update on someone’s mental health in between clinical sessions, but our study found people are generally happy to share their personal data in real-time when its tracked by wearable technology like a Fitbit for instance.” Dr Knight says.

43 young adults that had previously reported suffering moderate psychological distress were recruited for the study. Their physical activity was then monitored over eight months using smart watches and phone apps to determine if their mental condition correlated with changes in physical activity.

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