Going Digital to Find Depression Early Warning Signs
The Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression at CAMH is leading one of the first-ever studies to monitor youth depression through the use of mobile and wearable technology, with the goal of optimizing early intervention.
The smartphone in your hand and the fitness tracker on your wrist may be the future of mental health.
The Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression at CAMH is leading one of the first-ever studies to monitor youth depression through the use of mobile and wearable technology. The Depression Early Warning (DEW) study will allow Clinician Scientists Dr. Marco Battaglia and Dr. John Strauss to monitor youth with depression over the next two years. This research initiative involves a worldwide network of investigators, from research centres in Australia, Asia and Europe and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
“For young people who experience depression, the time elapsing between recognizing the onset of a depressive episode and beginning treatment is often too long,” says Dr. Strauss. “By identifying early warning signs of depression, we hope to optimize early intervention.”
DEW study findings may allow health care professionals to provide better care for their patients by better predicting upcoming depressive episodes, identifying individual risk factors for depression and monitoring how patients respond to treatment.
Major depression affects about seven to 18 per cent of children and youth. Suicide, which can be a severe consequence of major depression, is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 to 29. Of youth who experience a depressive episode, more than half are likely to have recurring episodes into adulthood.
Currently, not much is known about why youth depression begins, the likelihood that a young person will relapse after getting better, or appropriate prevention strategies. But earlier intervention can decrease the likelihood of future episodes and the development of more severe symptoms.
Depression research is exploring techniques that resonate with youth, such as mobile and wearable technologies, that may lead to improved diagnostic and treatment practices. The widespread use of smartphones by young people sets the stage for their use to study youth mood and behaviour.
In the DEW study, participants between the ages of 12 and 21 will wear a GENEActiv device on their wrist, which is similar to activity trackers such as Fitbit. GENEActiv devices are well suited to research initiatives, as they can collect large amounts of data on various measures with minimal battery usage. The devices reliably record physical activity and sleep habits, both of which can create a profile of a person’s behaviours and help pinpoint unusual periods of inactivity or problematic sleep patterns. While periods of reduced physical activity and sleep problems are quite common, persistent periods may indicate changes in mood and the onset of depression.
Additionally, DEW participants’ smartphones will collect other physical activity data, and prompt individuals to complete online questionnaires as part of an “electronic diary.” Individuals will submit information about their current mood, health, routines and daily life events, all of which will help track changes in wellbeing. A mobile app will also record frequency of phone use, which can allow researchers to approximate a person’s amount of social engagement. All of this information may be useful in predicting the onset of a depressive episode and can demonstrate a clear pattern of one’s depressive behaviours.
In the short term, says Dr. Battaglia, Associate Chief of CAMH’s Child, Youth and Emerging Adult Program, the DEW initiative may enable youth participating in the study to better track their symptoms, and may encourage them to be more active, ultimately empowering them during the recovery process.
“In the long term, these multiple and sensitive readouts of mood deterioration may encourage communication between young people and their health care professionals and families, and facilitate early treatment and behaviour changes that could prevent a depression relapse,” says Dr. Battaglia.
Join the Study
If you or a family member would like to find out about joining the Depression Early Warning (DEW) study, please contact Steve Perrotta, Research Analyst, at 416-535-8501 ext. 30952 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer La Grassa worked on the DEW study as a research placement student.
In the Summer 2018 Issue of CAMH Discovers Quarterly: