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Google develops test for clinical depression

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BY ANA MEJIA

It has become common for avid internet users like myself to Google symptoms as soon as we feel something as minor as a headache. Websites like WebMD and Mayo Clinic offer symptom checkers and disease explanations made for the common consumer. Now, Google, in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), has launched an online test for clinical depression. The option to “check if you are clinically depressed” will display on the “Knowledge Panel” when a user types in the word “depression” on Google mobile.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression “causes distressing symptoms that affect how you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating or working … nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.” It is also a very common condition; the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports one in five Americans will experience an episode of depression in their lifetime. Despite its commonality among Americans, only about 50 percent of those affected will seek treatment, according to Mary Giliberti, CEO of NAMI.

With questions like “Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping too much?” the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) screening tool aims at informing adults about the symptoms of clinical depression so that they will seek treatment if they feel they need it. The test only takes about five minutes to complete and doesn’t provide a definitive diagnosis.

Unlike physical diseases, mental illnesses are usually looked down upon and not given the attention they require. The stigma of mental illness has recently been in the spotlight and people are finally starting to act against it. Members of the Foo Fighters have spoken out to raise awareness of depression and mental illness following the deaths of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. Maryland rapper Logic performed his song “1-800-273-8255”— named after the national suicide prevention hotline — at the MTV Music Video Awards.

The worst outcome of stigmas is when we begin to judge ourselves. The lack of understanding from family and friends can lead to someone not wanting to seek medical help when faced with symptoms of a condition. A test like the one Google provides is a good starting point when deciding to pursue medical help.

Another benefit of the test is that it addresses aspects of depression that not everyone is aware of. Depression is usually associated with being sad or angry or crying, but

there are many other ways it can manifest. Anxiety, restless sleep and loss of interest in daily activities are symptoms of clinical depression. Sometimes we may not even be aware we are experiencing symptoms of the condition. AAP News reports research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting showed the percentage of children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions has doubled in the U.S. over the past decade. These thoughts or actions could have been prevented if we lived in a more informed society that gave mental illness the respect and relevance it deserves. Google’s new test is a step towards that type of society and could push people to get potentially life-saving help they would’ve otherwise shied away from.

Google stated that the results of the test are confidential and that the purpose is only to inform the public and to empower people to get help if needed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help to treat a mental illness, just as there is nothing wrong with seeking help to treat a fever. If there is a symptom checker that can inform you about your runny nose, why shouldn’t there be one that can inform you about a possible mental condition? As with all matters of health, it should be treated with responsibility.

Ana Mejia can be reached at ana.mejia@spartans.ut.edu.

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