Companies are Building Algorithms to Diagnose Depression

One doctor shares why he’s adamant they won’t work.

Image by  DrAfter123/ Getty Images

It might seem like using an app to help diagnose your mental health issues is the way of the future, but people hoping to consult their devices to get a diagnosis probably won’t find an accurate one.

Tech companies have created tools and apps that use algorithms to identify mental health issues, but in an op-ed for the Washington Post, internal medicine physician Adam Hofmann warns against these tech-age services. “While there are certainly potential positive applications of using technology to identify and address mental health,” he writes. “The potential negatives are significant and must be addressed.”

Social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have begun using screening tools to flag users’ symptoms. A company called Crisis Text Line, for example, uses chatbots to identify keywords in text messages, connects users to crisis counselors, and even sends out emergency services to intervene in potentially suicidal situations. But Hofmann says he’s skeptical of this new technology, even if the services are tailored to help users.

“To start, the tools themselves might be crude or rudimentary,” Hofmann points out. “[They’re] designed by people untrained in psychiatry or psychology and thus, unmoored from their usefulness in a clinical setting for determining whether a patient is depressed or not.” Hofmann’s concern about the training of the technicians behind the apps is step one, but within the execution of the diagnoses, he sees two glaring problems that follow. “There are the risks of ‘false positives,’ of labelling healthy people as being mentally ill,” Hofmann explains, “And the risks of ‘false negatives,’ of missing cases of mental illness that actively require our attention.”

Another problem: the algorithms that flag symptoms could be leading people to think they’re depressed when they’re not — and could lead people to think they’re OK when they’d actually benefit from professional help. Plus, if potential employers or government programs started using these tools to decide who is eligible for life insurance, or who can own a gun, the consequences could be seriously dangerous. “One’s mental health is a complex interplay of genetic, physical and environmental factors,” Hofmann notes, “Could a government agency decide to rescind an individual’s right to bear arms based on his or her Twitter posts?”

When it comes to mental health, relying on technology to diagnose you has major limitations. And in fact, disconnecting from your smartphone for a moment can help improve your mood if you’re feeling anxious or down.

Here are a few practical (and analog!) microsteps for when need a mental health boost:

1. Write down your thoughts

Sometimes, the first step is putting away your devices and just writing. By getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, you can better come to terms with how you’re feeling, and then judge if your anxious feelings are something that you want to handle on your own, or if you should seek help. Even if you’re not much of a writer, you’ll be surprised by how therapeutic it can feel to simply get your feelings out of your head and onto paper.

2. Take a mental health day

Whether you’re dealing with work stress, anxiety in your personal life, or something even deeper, taking a mental health day can grant you the time to sit down with your thoughts and assess what’s going on. Whether you spend the day journaling, trying a guided meditation, or just embracing some much-needed self-care, taking a day off can help you put things in perspective and help you take the necessary next steps for yourself.

3. Talk to a friend

Making the call to a professional therapist can be daunting, so talking to a friend can be a great first step. By simply admitting your struggle out loud, you can talk out the options with someone you trust, and even hear a perspective you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Plus, once you say it out loud, you may find yourself less hesitant to reach out to a professional and vocalize what you’re going through.

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