Your Smartwatch Is About to Become Your New Therapist

In the very near future, wearable tech apps may be the key to improving the lives of the hundreds of millions of people who live with mental illness.

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It’s no secret that technology can help your health: Your smartphone, fitness tracker and smartwatch can monitor your heart rate, count your steps, tell you to meditate and track the quality of that blissful, post-meditation sleep. But can they help your mental health? Hopefully, yes.

Some scientists and software developers are moving away from calculating how many calories you’re burning and putting their efforts toward a new cause: creating wearable-tech apps (similar to the mental health phone apps you’re used to) that improve care for more than 450 million people worldwide who suffer from mental illness. And this innovative tech couldn’t have come at a better time: One in two Canadians will experience mental illness by the time they reach the age of 40, and it’s the leading cause of disability in Canada. Suicide continues to be a leading cause of death among youth, and 4,000 people commit suicide in Canada each year (an average of almost 11 suicides a day).

What’s also alarming about the numbers is the stigma that still remains when it comes to talking about mental health and seeking help: A whopping 40 percent of people reported that they have experienced depression or anxiety at some point but didn’t seek help, and perhaps that’s partly because they don’t know where to begin. If you’re struggling, here are tips that may help you have the talk with a loved one about your mental illness.


That’s where apps come in. With apps, stigma is no longer an issue because they can gather data about your mental health without you having to utter a word. “Each test can be used several times a day, every day, allowing a detailed picture of cognition to be recorded over hours, days, weeks and months,” says Jenny Barnett, chief scientific officer of the U.K.-based Cambridge Cognition, which created Cognition Kit, a collection of cognitive tests done on a smartphone or smartwatch. Cognition Kit is primarily being licenced by pharmaceutical companies to collect real-world data on a group of participants in a study.

There are Canadian companies working on this innovative tech, too. Montreal-based AI start-up is creating an app that will work passively in the background of a smartphone, collecting data online and offline. It works to prevent a depressive episode and alerts a user’s trusted circle of loved ones if it thinks something is amiss.

So far, the data checks out. A 2015 study by the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University in Chicago tracked the link between GPS measurements and symptoms of depression and found that people tend to stay home more when they are depressed (common with winter depression). Similarly, a study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology showed that researchers were able to predict signs of relapse in schizophrenia patients by tracking mobility patterns and social behaviour.


There are other benefits to using this tech. Analyzing real-time, high-frequency data provides a more objective, nuanced look at how a person is feeling than what is self-reported by patients in traditional clinical settings. Translation: You might not be aware of what you’re feeling, but your behaviour speaks for itself. For example, did you know stress eating might mean it’s time to speak to a therapist? This holistic data could help paint a clearer picture of your mental health and establish a more effective, targeted treatment plan.

In addition to passively tracking metrics like step counts, Cognition Kit integrates brief tests that prompt wearers to self-assess their mood and cognitive function. “What we’re trying to do is triangulate between how people say they’re feeling and how we measure that objectively through biometrics,” says Barnett. Having a record of both passive data and self-reported mood assessments that spans several weeks also takes the onus off the patient to accurately remember how they were feeling since the last time they sat down with their psychiatrist or health care provider. It could also help identify lifestyle changes that could help improve your mood—for example could exercise be the prescription you need to better your mental health?


Barnett also points to a high-level of objectivity and accuracy in the data that is collected through tech, partly due to an absence of what is known as the “white coat effect.” “It’s about the effect that being in a clinical setting, which can be quite scary for people, has on a patient’s test performance,” explains Barnett. For example, people’s blood pressure tends to be much higher when they’re sitting in a doctor’s office than when they’re relaxing at home. Being able to collect data when someone is in a familiar, low-pressure environment is likely to give a more accurate, realistic depiction of their mental health, which will influence treatment options. “We’re trying to give people a way to represent how their health is most of the time, not just when they’re sitting in an office with their therapist,” says Barnett. If you experience stress at your therapist’s office or anywhere, try these tips for handling the crippling physical symptoms of anxiety.

Because of the sensitive, private nature of mental health data, people may also be more likely to share information through an app. This wearable technology may not only resolve some of the resistance that people have to divulging information to a therapist but also help solve our health care access problem. In Ontario, only seven per-cent of health care funding is allocated to mental health treatment, with wait times to see a therapist running up to a year. “Wherever you live, there’s an access problem to mental health care, but almost everyone around the world has access to smartphone technology,” says Dr. John Torous, a psychiatrist and director of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School. “Now, there’s the potential to collect mental health information and deliver interventions from the palm of someone’s hand,” adds Dr. Torous. “For the first time, we have access to what may be the lived experience of mental illness.” Interested in checking out the smartphone apps for yourself? Check out this article to find the best mental health apps for you.

While Dr. Torous has studied the technology extensively – having developed his own mental health app for research purposes – and is excited about the potential, he is quick to point out that hard evidence for the positive impact of this technology is scarce. “Just because we can collect the data doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s valuable or informative or that we know how to process it in the right way,” says Dr. Torous.


The research on mental health tech is promising, but Dr. Torous says that there needs to be reproducible studies with larger sample groups to draw any scientific conclusions. “People will turn to these apps because we say they’re accessible and affordable, but are they actually getting ineffective treatment that’s wasting their time?” he says. Even if the apps prove to be effective as part of a patient’s mental health care plan upon further research, there is the issue of privacy that needs to be addressed.

Certain companies, such as Cognition Kit, assure users that their data is securely stored and shared only with a patient’s chosen health care provider, but that may not be the case with all apps. “A lot of these apps are careful to say that they’re not health care apps so that they can live outside the health care space and not offer users the protection that someone gets when talking to a doctor or therapist,” warns Dr. Torous. “The price of using a free mental health app may be giving up your personal mental health history, and I don’t think people are aware of this trade-off.”

While companies like Cognition Kit aim to enhance the patient-clinician relationship through a shared set of real-time data, whether it will strengthen or fragment mental health care will only become evident as further research is done. “Just like some families report that smart-phones have made dinner time less personal, we have to wonder if this technology will augment the doctor-patient relationship or get between it, confuse priorities and set miscellaneous goals,” says Dr. Torous. Ultimately, we don’t know exactly how it will affect treatment plans until more research is done, beyond the fact that more accurate information can lead to a more targeted treatment method.

Whether the thought of saying goodbye to counselling drudgery (and its cost) sparks a happy dance or you’re one Siri miscommunication away from going off-grid as it is, wearable mental health apps may be just the tool you need to take mental health treatment to the next level.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada