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Published on February 14th, 2018 | from CAMH

The future of mental health is on your wrist or in your pocket

By Jennifer La Grassa, Research Placement Student

The smartphone in your hand and the fitness tracker on your wrist may be the future of mental health.

Globally, depression affects 300 million people and is expected to become the second costliest health problem for many developed countries by the year 2020. Major depressive disorder affects children and youth; the lifetime prevalence of the disorder ranges from about seven to 18 per cent for this population. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those 15 to 29. Of youth who experience a depressive episode, more than half are likely to have recurring episodes into adulthood. Earlier intervention can decrease the likelihood of future episodes and the development of more severe symptoms.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the onset of youth depression, the likelihood of relapse, or appropriate prevention strategies. Depression research is exploring techniques that resonate with youth and may lead to improved diagnostic and treatment practices, including mobile and wearable technologies.

The widespread global use of smartphones by young people sets the stage for their use in the study of youth mood and behaviour. Smartphone sensors and activity trackers, such as a Fitbit or similar wearables, reliably record physical activity and sleep habits, both of which can create a profile of one’s behaviour and help pinpoint unusual periods of inactivity or problematic sleep patterns. Other information can be extracted from mobile devices using apps that capture frequency of phone use, which can allow clinicians to approximate social engagement. This data may be useful in predicting the onset of a depressive episode and can demonstrate a clear pattern of one’s depressive behaviours.

The Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression at CAMH is leading one of the first studies in the world to monitor youth depression through the use of mobile and wearable technology. The Depression Early Warning (DEW) study will allow Clinician Scientists Dr. Marco Battaglia and Dr. John Strauss to monitor depressed youth over the next two years. Participants between the ages of 12 and 21 will wear a GENEActiv device that will record their daily physical and sleep activities. Additionally, participants’ smartphones will collect physical activity data and prompt them to complete online questionnaires as part of an “electronic diary.” Questionnaires will ask individuals about their current mood, health, routine and daily life events, all of which will track well-being over time. This research initiative is part of a worldwide network of investigators, including research centres in Australia, Asia, Europe and the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States.

Study findings may allow clinicians to better predict upcoming depressive episodes, identify individual risk factors for depression and monitor treatment response. The study may also encourage those diagnosed with major depressive disorder to track their symptoms and be more active, support behaviour activation, and empower them during the recovery process.

Mobile technology may prove itself to be a great tool in tracking the trajectory of mental illness. Future implications will become more evident in “DEW” time, as the project has just begun seeking participants.

For more information on the DEW study, please contact:
Steve Perrotta, Research Analyst
416-535-8501 x30952
dewstudy@camh.ca 

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