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How Google Is Helping To Identify People With Depression
When it comes to illness, many people’s first thought nowadays is to look up their symptoms on Google or some other search engine, even before they talk to their doctor. Mental illness is no exception. Google took notice of the fact that people were searching for symptoms of emotional problems and mental illness, and has partnered with experts in the field of mental illness to help design an online screening tool to help people searching for such information realize that they might need help.
What are the benefits of this new tool, and are there other potential risks?
Google’s Questionnaire Tool
When people search for “clinical depression” on their smart phone, they will get more than just search engine results: A knowledge panel will now appear with the words “Check if you’re clinically depressed”. If you click, you’ll be taken to the PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionanire-9).
Google has partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to set up this question-based screening tool for clinical depression. In a statement from NAMI on Google’s company blog, the PHQ-9 is described as a “clinically validated screening tool” which can help determine what levels of depressive symptoms a person may have based on their answers.
The idea behind the PHQ-9 is that people searching for the term “clinical depression” on Google might be trying to find out if they are experiencing depression themselves. Using this free questionnaire will, at least in theory, allow many undiagnosed people to determine that they may indeed have symptoms of depression, and be inspired to seek help.
NAMI is a highly regarded organization and Google certainly seems to think that they’re on to something, but what do mental health professionals think about the PHQ-9?
In a recent article by Live Science on the topic, experts seemed to like the idea since many people who wouldn’t otherwise seek treatment will know that they should. On the other hand, there is the risk of false positives where people who don’t have depressive symptoms might think that they do after taking the PHQ-9. Someone who is just having a bad day, or might be down in the dumps after one of life’s normal ups and downs (a breakup, flat tire, etc) might think they have clinical depression, when they actually don’t.
Dr. David Hellerstein, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Pearlman School of Medicine, pointed out that the PHQ-9 is a useful screening tool, but that is probably better suited to clinical setting rather than the general population using their phones.
Overtime, it is likely that Google and NAMI will use the feedback of professionals like Dr. Hellerstein to improve the PHQ-9 and improve the questionnaire to make it more accurate, and make better judgements about when it is appropriate to offer the link to the tool.
The Bottom Line
Clinical depression is a serious condition, and can be potentially very debilitating in people with serious cases. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of clinical depression, talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a qualified mental health professional. It’s not something you should just suffer through in silence. Online questionnaires can be useful, but talking to an expert is the best way to accurately determine if you are just having a bad day, or if you have an actual case of clinical depression.