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Phoning In a Cure for Depression

Feb. 13, 2012 | Harry Kimball

Yup, there's an app for that, or will be soon. At Northwestern University, psychologists are developing a phone smart enough to detect signs of an oncoming depressive episode and steer the user towards social behavior and enjoyable activities. Called Mobilyze!, the device will track everything from physical activity and location to the frequency of social communication via telephone or email. If the phone thinks your mood is depressed, it will suggest you take a walk or keep a date with friends.

"It creates a positive feedback loop," inventor David Mohr tells LiveScience. "Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again." This prevents the opposite from happening. "Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral." 

The admirable aspect of this approach is that it stresses early intervention, and envisions a world where clinical insight is more integrated into the lives and attitudes of patients. "If we can develop interventions that fit more smoothly into the fabric of life," Mohr says, more people will take advantage of them. Instead of waiting for depression to become clinically significant, he says, "we're developing systems that identify when people are at risk for feeling worse or when engaged in activities that are likely to help them, and contact them then instead."

The flipside of this is that depression is a real illness that deserves the careful attention of a trained clinician, someone who is skilled at diagnosis and the treatment that can be so effective. That can't fit in a phone, no matter how smart it is, and some wonder if Mobilyze! might actually dissuade people from getting the help they need. 

At Mashable, many comments were dismissive. "It cannot tell you if you are depressed or anything else about you," a psychologist writes, "and apps wont be able to treat mood disorders and psychological issues." Another reader raised the spectre of the false hope a device could provide. "Someone who relies on a bit of tech instead of visiting their doctor for professional treatment could be making a 'big' mistake."

Still, the future of this concept is unclear. A small study found that Mobilyze! reduced symptoms in patients who already had diagnoses of depression, by helping them notice maladaptive behaviors. Whether or not it takes off, the inventors' hearts are in the right place, as echoed by another comment at Mashable. "If one person was helped because of this app, wouldn't it be a good idea?"

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