The chances of experiencing depression in your lifetime are one in five. A free app developed by researcher Eiko Fried should start preventing depression by predicting it in time.
What causes depression is a tricky question that has been studied for decades, sighs Eiko Fried, associate professor of clinical psychology at Leiden University. People with depression have similarities, but there are also many differences.
What researchers already know is that having less money and being a woman increases the risk of depression. Fried says: “But it can also be more specific. Some people only need five hours of sleep, others get stressed if they don’t get their nine hours of sleep. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to determine what the risk of depression is and when it occurs for each person. That’s the Holy Grail in clinical psychology.”
That’s why Fried is developing an early warning system - WARN-D - to prevent depression. He received a European ERC grant of €1.5 million for the project and will spend two years researching the mental health of students at universities and colleges. “The ultimate goal is to create an app enabling participants to track how they feel. It’s like a menstrual app or storm radar but one that can predict depression.”
Healthy and sick lakes
Predicting depression works through the same complex science used to predict weather or stock prices. “Every system has warning signals. The warning signals from one complex system can be generalized and translated to another complex system,” said Fried, who has a background in complexity science. “Lakes are complex systems with two states, a clean and a turbid, diseased state. Dutch ecologists have succeeded in using statistics to predict early warning signals indicating when a lake’s healthy state is turning into a diseased one. My idea is to do the same for psychological depression.”
Fried chose college students because they are most likely to develop depression at this stage of life. One in five Dutch and Belgian students develop mental health issues in their first year of study. “Incidentally, it is difficult to argue that students are at higher risk than their non-student peers. Mental health issues are more likely to be related to age, autonomy, moving, financial problems, and worries about the future.”
With corona, mental health issues among students have increased even more. “We just conducted a literature review that shows that young people have indeed become more susceptible to mental health issues because of corona. But we found no evidence that the problems have increased threefold, as some studies have indicated.”
In the study, Fried zooms in on the daily lives of a total of 2,000 students. After completing a survey about their background, the students wear a smartwatch for the first three months that collects data about their sleep, movement, and heart rate, among other things. During that same period, they complete a short questionnaire four times a day. What are they doing? Where are they? And how are they feeling? After three months, the smartwatch comes off and the students are sent a questionnaire only once every few months. In total, they are tracked for two years.
At the end of these intense initial three months, participants receive a data visualization of their individual data set. “A kind of Spotify Wrapped, an overview of where you were, at home or at school, when you were happiest and when you were less happy. By the way, we chose not to collect GPS data, even though European legislation allows it.”
Fried is still looking for a diverse group of students to fill his final contingent of 500. “In mental health research so far, mainly white university students have participated, but we are also focusing on colleges and MBOs. Everyone is welcome, as long as they speak Dutch or English.” Participation is incentivized with a €90 honorarium. “It should be an incentive, not income.” This is in addition to the use of the smartwatch and personalized data report.
The app is expected to be in place in three years, and will likely display how your mental health is doing like a traffic light. “But it’s still in development. We also want to avoid false positives. If people are told they are going to be depressed, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The next step would be to connect the app to online help programs for mental health problems such as those offered by Caring Universities. Says Fried: “And also make those services available to everyone, not just students.”
You can sign up for the study here until April 20, 2023.