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MoodSnap! Technology for mental health

18 May 2022

1:00 PM

18 May 2022

1:00 PM

We’ve all become familiar with integrated app-based health platforms like Apple Health, Google Fit, and Fitbit allowing us to track our physical health statistics in real-time, see trends, and gain insights. Observing how our level of exercise correlates with our weight and cardio fitness are things every fitness watch wearer has become accustomed to.

Digital health ecosystems have evolved into a multi-billion dollar market in their own right.

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and the two are intimately connected. Current major platforms overlook this vital component of our health, even though it wields considerable influence. It would be remiss for any digital health ecosystem to ignore the mental health component.

Phone usage has often been associated with a decline in mental health. For example, studies have connected screen time with increased levels of depression and anxiety, while some experts argue that internet addiction is a distinct psychological condition.

However, phone usage needn’t have a strictly negative impact. App-based technology has demonstrated huge potential in improving mental health if tailored correctly. Like our physical health, mental health can be quantified based on various metrics, including mood levels like elevation, depression, and anxiety, and there are many common symptoms associated both with diagnosed mental health conditions, but also experienced by those with none.

Apps could allow users to quickly record snapshots of their moods, symptoms, and activities in the same time it takes to strap on an Apple Watch or stand on the scales. These apps could record mental health characteristics in real-time and then use this fine-grained information to provide deep insight into what is affecting our mental wellbeing and how it connects with our physical health, activities, life experiences, and treatment. 

Exercise, for example, is well known to be linked to improved mental health, as are healthy eating habits, and sufficient levels of sleep. The connection between mood symptoms and menstrual cycles is one that many can attest to. During recent periods of extended lockdowns around the world we have become highly aware of the importance of social contact for our mental wellbeing, with increased rates of depression and anxiety associated with extended social isolation. Real-time tracking has the potential to provide just as much – or potentially more – insight into what affects our mental health than our physical health.

The real-time nature of this information has significant potential to revolutionise clinical studies. Ordinarily, psychological research studies are conducted based on face-to-face self-reporting or periodic written questionnaires, introducing significant latency, room for recollection biases, and the risk of being more qualitative than quantitative. They also provide very coarse-grained information over long timescales, whereas apps provide a mechanism to fine-grain this with enormous temporal precision.

With real-time app-based tracking, sample sizes could be far larger and easier to come by, with data more fine-grained and reliable for statistical analysis, a valuable tool for psychological research. Some measures relevant to certain psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder by necessity need to be observed over fine-grained timescales owing to the inherent volatility of these conditions.

While this kind of information gathering is especially useful to those suffering from mood-related conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, BPD, and PTSD, it is also highly relevant to those with no formal diagnoses. We all experience ups and downs, and the majority of us will experience mental health challenges at some point during our lives.

There is significant room to improve doctor/patient communication using this technology. Patients seeing psychologists or psychiatrists might do so on a weekly or monthly basis, or less, at which point in a short face-to-face session the patient will attempt to summarise a month’s worth of life experience. With a summary of real-time data at hand this process can be made far more efficient and the reporting more objective and quantitative.

Recently, I initiated an open-source software project called MoodSnap, building upon my own experiences as someone with a bipolar diagnosis, previous work as a counsellor, and far more experience as a patient. The app provides an integrated platform for journaling mood levels, symptom and activity tracking, and physical health data. These are statistically correlated to provide insights into how they connect. The platform is customisable, lending itself to potential future use as a clinical study tool.

The app is currently available for free and the source code available on GitHub, a platform for making source code publicly and freely available.

While excessive phone usage will likely remain something we should avoid in the interests of our mental wellbeing, when used for the right purposes the potential for understanding and improving our mental health could be just as revolutionary as fitness watches have become for our physical health. Companies like Apple are investing heavily into digital health, and recognise it as one of the most promising aspects of their software and hardware ecosystems.

It’s overdue that mental health becomes a key component of these ecosystems. Mental and physical health cannot be separated, and form the two central pillars of our overall wellbeing and life satisfaction.

Dr Peter Rohde is a Senior Lecturer in quantum computing at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, and a former Lifeline counsellor. He is the developer of MoodSnap, an open-source mood diary app for real-time mental health tracking.

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