How smartphones can help

DrAstrophysicist Carl Sagan imagined the future of therapy in 1975 this way: He thought there was a phone booth on every street corner, where you could insert some coins and then a robotic processor phone. Phone booths are few and far between today, but Sagan’s vision still looks very relevant in 2022. At least you read the promises of different apps called Bloom, MindDoc, Selfapy, Deprexis 24, or Mindstrong:

“Be your own healer.”
“Affordable Online Consultant Therapy – Anytime, Anywhere.”
“The app writes people thank you letters to.”
“Your companion on the path to emotional well-being.”
“Online therapy is flexible in terms of time and location.”

Digital therapy programs that promise to help treat mild to moderate depression that you can easily use on your smartphone. Immediate help instead of long queues. Chat and video therapy for anxiety, panic attacks or even eating disorders. In Germany there are now some applications to combat depression even under the prescription of health insurance.

While human processors are still behind on some applications, others have long been using algorithms, big data, and artificial intelligence. Depressed people can track their mood on their smartphone. Chatbots such as Woebot can also guide behavioral therapy exercises. Algorithms can actually track down suicidal users in social networks. An app in California wants to be able to predict the stages of depression based on the typing and scrolling behavior of a mobile phone user.

A story from the current issue of FAZ magazine “Frankfurter Allgemeine Quarterly”.

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How long will it be before people in depression choose to switch to AI? Can it help us improve our mental health? Can it help to recognize depression early? And radically change treatment in the future?

This may seem strange at first, but AI can actually predict our behavior very well today and will be able to do it even better in the future. In any case, tech companies have always claimed this ability for themselves when they offer their services to advertisers, insurance companies, or confidential services. And now some researchers want an AI that can treat people without huge costs and without time limits, unlike human therapists.

Promise: You will notice a depressive phase

Above all, the American psychiatrist Thomas Insel. In an article published in the journal World Psychiatry, he wrote: “Our lack of objective measurements has hampered both diagnosis and treatment in psychiatry.” Appetite and emotional states are reported. But there is a more objective measurement source: the smartphone. This can collect data that researchers used to dream about, whether it’s heart rate, movement patterns, social interaction, mood or sleep.

Thomas Insel is one of the most famous psychiatrists in the United States. He ran the National Institute of Mental Health for years, but became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in his field. He managed to get a lot of really great papers published by great scientists at a very high cost, he told the papers and Ted Talks. What it didn’t do was reduce suicide rates and hospital stays, the real mental health of millions of people. Insel left the National Institute and founded the Mindstrong app with a computer scientist. The app claims to be able to determine a user’s performance by tapping, swiping, and swiping a smartphone, promising to notify users when they slip into the depression stage, and then instantly notifying psychologists and coaches working with Mindstrong. Insel’s central question: Can smartphones save us from a mental health crisis?

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