Despite new drugs, brain scans, and other innovations, mental illness remains an epidemic that we don’t know how to cure or treat. Tom Insel is trying to change that, and he thinks our phones will be the key (David Dobbs in The Atlantic). Insel, who led the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years, left government to join the mental-health effort at Verily, Google’s healthcare spinoff — and recently left Verily for a new startup called Mindstrong.
Like several other companies in this field, Mindstrong intends to use the stream of data that our phones produce as a sort of early-warning system for the onset of conditions like depression and schizophrenia, and then help connect the user with counselors, peers, or doctors who can offer resources and treatments — quickly enough to make a difference.
How does that work? The idea, Dobbs writes, is to use the social data that a phone can track to flag episodes of depression in patients: “They may talk with fewer people; and when they talk, they may speak more slowly, say less, and use clumsier sentences and a smaller vocabulary. They may return fewer calls, texts, emails, Twitter direct messages, and Facebook messages. They may pick up the phone more slowly, if they pick up at all, and they may spend more time at home and go fewer places. They may sleep differently.”
Today, psychiatry emphasizes the importance of social connections in keeping patients with psychological disorders stable and helping them improve. For much of humanity, the smartphone has become a primary channel for human connection. If we can also turn it into a tool for mental well-being, that could be huge — and a better bet, Insel argues, than praying for the next miracle drug.