Does Google think you're depressed? How tech is changing mental health

Those who search for the term are invited to answer nine questions.

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In the United States, anyone who types "depression" into Google's search engine will be offered a test to establish whether they have clinical depression. Users are invited to answer nine questions, measuring how often you have “little interest or pleasure in doing things” or “trouble concentrating on things such as reading the newspaper”.

The search engine’s decision to begin helping people who may be living with depression has received a sceptical response. Concerns are being raised about data being commoditised and falling into the wrong hands. These seem reasonable, given the stigma surrounding mental health - there aren’t many of us who would volunteer possession of a mental disorder to someone assessing us for a loan or insurance, after all.

But with hackers also targetting the NHS, perhaps privacy campaigners should worry more about the encryption of health records than their digital footprint. The survey and Google’s use of it has been endorsed as robust and ethical by the National Alliance for Mental Illness in America, the first region to receive the "tap to test" functionality.

The Alliance is clear about why back the move - one in five people will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime but only half of those will access support. Depression is treatable but the delay between onset of symptoms and receiving it averages seven years. In the internet age, with the discretion it affords, this can be accelerated.

Whether we see the fallacies of our own pseudo-screening or not, searching for medical conditions on Google has become normalised. It is convenient. It is routine. What’s more, doctors themselves do it. We should welcome any moves made by Google, the most popular search engine, to filter the credible – the clinically validated – from the competition.

If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, or know someone who has, you may now be familiar with what characterises it. But there was a time, for each of us, when we didn’t know the traits. A diagnosis can be the first step towards recovery.

There are many reasons why people might not go to their GP, or might delay going to a GP, to discuss what they are feeling. Common responses to the symptoms of depression include denial, fear of stigma or a belief that the problem is not a medical one. An online assessment is relatively anonymous, and could encourage some people to seek further help earlier. Google signposts those who complete its test towards relevant mental health professionals and support services.

Often the first person to spot a mental health condition is neither patient nor doctor, but a partner, friend or relative. They may have become concerned at a change in behaviour that threatens capacity to work, love or live. Doctors can’t discuss a patient’s health externally due to confidentiality. This is only right, of course. But it does mean that the carer can gain no ground by approaching the individual’s GP. For this group in particular, Google has long been a friend. 

The symptoms of depression are less well known among the general public than by those of us who work in mental health. The symptoms of other mental health conditions even less so. Knowledge should be shared, not hoarded. Google is no substitute for a psychiatric assessment, but it may lead to one.

Moz.com, the search analysis website, report there were over 70,000 searches for schizophrenia in the UK last month, more than any other mental health term. Perhaps this will be the next keyword to get a diagnostic test. Let's not stop with depression.

Barney Cullum is the editor of Mental Health Today and Learning Disability Today.