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Smartphones Using Artificial Intelligence Can Predict User’s Mental Well-Being

At the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, researchers are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app.

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Students, smartphones
Students walk across a campus in Portland, Oregon. VOA

Could the devices being blamed for teen depression be useful in revealing it?

Studies have linked heavy smartphone use with worsening teen mental health. But as teens spend time on sites like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, they also leave digital trails that may offer signs about their mental well-being.

Experts say possible warning signs include changes in writing speed, voice quality, word choice and how often a student stays home from school.

There are more than 1,000 smartphone “biomarkers,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is the largest mental health research organization in the world. Insel is a leader in the smartphone psychiatry movement.

Snapchat, smartphones
An image of the Snapchat logo created with Post-it notes is seen in lower Manhattan, New York, May 18, 2016. VOA

Researchers are testing smartphone apps that use artificial intelligence, or AI, to predict depression and possible self-harm. Using smartphones as mental health detectors require permission from users to download an app, and permission could be revoked any time.

Nick Allen, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has created an app being tested on young people who have attempted suicide. Allen says the biggest barrier is discerning the mental health crisis signals in the information on people’s phones.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34 in the United States. By 2015, suicide rates among teen boys rose to 14 in every 100,000 and five in every 100,000 people, among girls. A recent study suggested a rise in smartphone use has probably worsened the crisis.

People with mental illness, Insel said, usually get treatment “when they’re in crisis and very late. … We want to have a method to identify the earliest signs.”

Smartphones
iPhones on display at an Apple store in Virginia, USA, April 4, 2016. VOA

If smartphones can become effective predictors, app developers say the goal might be to offer automated text messages and links to assistance, or digital messages to parents, doctors and first responders.

Facebook employs “proactive detection.” Last year, after a suicide was broadcast on Facebook Live, the company trained its AI systems to look for words in online posts that could predict possible self-harm. Friends’ comments expressing concern about the user’s well-being are part of that detection system.

Facebook has helped first responders quickly reach around 3,500 people in the past year. But the company did not offer followup details on those people.

Ongoing research includes a Stanford University study of about 200 teens. Many of them are at risk for depression because of bullying, family issues or other problems. Teens who have been studied since grade school get an experimental phone app that asks them questions about their mood three times a day for two weeks.

Students, smartphones
In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, a UCLA campus tour guide leads prospective college-bound high school seniors on a campus tour in Los Angeles. VOA

Laurel Foster, 15, is part of the study. Foster said she is stressed about school and friendships. Depression is common at her San Francisco high school, she said. The smartphone app felt a little like being spied on, she said, but many websites are already following users’ behaviors.

Alyssa Lizarraga, 19, is also part of the study. Lizarraga said she has had depression since high school, and worries about her heavy use of smartphones and social media. She said comparing herself with others online sometimes causes her sadness. But she believes using smartphones to identify mental health problems might help push people to seek early treatment.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers offer online counseling and an experimental phone app to students who show signs of at least minor depression on a test. It is part of a larger effort launched in 2017 by the university to battle depression in its students. About 250 UCLA students agreed to use the app during their first year.

Also Read: Depression In Girls Linked To Higher Use Of Social Media: Study

At the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, researchers are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app. Nearly 2,000 people have downloaded the app and agreed to let researchers follow typing behaviors. Alex Leow, a professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the university, helped develop the app.

The study is for people 18 and older, but Leow said it could also be used for children if successful.

Along with studies at universities, technology companies such as Mindstrong and Verily — the tech health division of Google — are testing their own experimental apps. (VOA)

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The Mental Health ‘Epidemic’: About Six in Ten Teen Say, They Feel A Lot Of Pressure To Get Good Grades

The American Psychological Association found that almost one-third of teens say they feel sad or depressed and overwhelmed due to stress.

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Today, one in three teens between the ages of 13 and 18 has an anxiety disorder. Pixabay

Nineteen-year-old college student Margaret Pisacano can usually feel a panic attack coming on; her thoughts start to spiral, her breathing speeds up, and her heart races.

“It’s as if a tornado and a tsunami of emotions just like overcame your body and you couldn’t control anything,” Pisacano says. “It was like almost a total loss of control over any feeling or thinking in your body.”

The Arizona native, who attends college in Florida, was first diagnosed with general anxiety disorder in middle school. She is among millions of stressed-out members of Generation Z — the group of young people born roughly between 1995 and 2015, who are currently between 4 and 24 years old.

A report released Thursday by the American Psychological Association finds the rate of adolescents reporting symptoms of major depression increased 52 percent between 2005 and 2017 — from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent — among youth from the ages of 12 and 17.

The increase was even higher — 63 percent from 2009 to 2017 — among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

The survey examined data from 611,880 adolescents and adults. The researchers did not find a similar increase in adults older than 26.

Today, one in three teens between the ages of 13 and 18 has an anxiety disorder.

“The current rate of anxiety is 31 percent in adolescents,” says Dr. Elena Mikalsen, head of the Psychology Section at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio in Texas. “It’s an epidemic. It’s a mental health emergency.”

Margaret Pisacano, 19, focuses on where she is in the moment to deal with anxiety about how her past affects her present, or how her present affects her future. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Pisacano)
Margaret Pisacano, 19, focuses on where she is in the moment to deal with anxiety about how her past affects her present, or how her present affects her future. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Pisacano). VOA

Everyone gets anxious some of the time, but that anxiety is usually temporary. However, for a person with an anxiety disorder, the feeling doesn’t go away and can worsen over time to the point where it might trigger headaches, chronic pain, stomach issues, immune system suppression and disrupted sleep.

School and the pressure to get good grades appears to be the leading source of stress for many young people.

“We see all of our anxiety referrals very clearly as soon as the school year starts, almost like from the first week and until the school year ends and then we see none of them in the summer,” says Mikalsen. “The worst is the end of May when all of the teens get their grades…they’re just panicking terribly. We hospitalize kids for all kinds of medical issues because they get their grades and their immune system just collapses. The highest rate of suicide is in April and May when they’re having finals, when they’re having exams.”

The American Psychological Association found that almost one-third of teens say they feel sad or depressed and overwhelmed due to stress.

Claire Taylor, a 17-year-old high school junior in Massachusetts, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety a couple of years ago, but didn’t have her first panic attack until she started visiting colleges ahead of her scheduled high school graduation next year.

“For my whole life, college has kind of been my end goal…It kind of hit me that college is not the end, and that there’s more after that,” Taylor says. “I’m really not sure what I want to go to college for and so just the whole prospect kind of freaked me out…I was shaking and crying and I couldn’t quite articulate why until after the fact.”

College-related anxiety is rising, according to a 2017 report from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The institute surveyed 8,264 incoming first-year students at 30 U.S. colleges and universities and found that 39 percent reported frequently feeling anxious, but fewer than half of those students say they sought personal counseling in college.

Tarek Saoud, 22, began suffering from panic attacks after he went to college and felt the mounting pressure to set a course for success in life.

“I tried switching my (college) majors a few times, but I really did not like anything,” he says. “Not being able to find something was a big issue for me…Where I grew up here in Northern Virginia, it’s very expected to be either a businessman, a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, something like along those lines. Those are what is seen as successful.”

Tarek Saoud, now 22, in a photo taken at Ohio State University on the day he decided which college to attend. (Photo courtesy of Tarek Saoud)
Tarek Saoud, now 22, in a photo taken at Ohio State University on the day he decided which college to attend. (Photo courtesy of Tarek Saoud). VOA

Getting an appointment at the on-campus mental health center proved almost impossible, according to Saoud, who recounts a near-suicide attempt that was interrupted by a concerned friend who came looking for him.

“I’d been thinking about suicide for months at that point…there’s this big ledge I was sitting on with this big fall under it. I was just kind of sitting there thinking about, ‘Could I do this right now? Like, do I have everything in order? Did I forget anything that would get anyone in trouble and what not?’ Not like sad about it, just getting my things in order,” he says.

“I kind of felt crazy in my own head,” Saoud says. “When I was getting anxiety, super-irrational thoughts were running through my head all the time. Things like, ‘You’re never going to be happy, things are never going to get better’…It’s really easy to mask whatever inner issues are going on by being a super social, outgoing person, drinking a lot.”

He left school in Ohio during his sophomore year in college, returning home to Northern Virginia where he was eventually diagnosed with anxiety and clinical depression.

There are two new stressors impacting young people that are perhaps a sign of the times. Mikalsen says more of her patients are concerned about school shootings and the lockdown drills they practice at school.

“I’ve been a psychologist for about twenty years and this is the first year that I now have patients who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from school lockdowns,” she says. “Before, it was you hide and now the hiding is not working, so now it’s attack the shooter and everybody’s like, ‘I can’t attack anybody. I’m too scared.’ And they’re supposed to be climbing on desks and throwing things and they’re practicing that in the classroom.”

Graphic: Pew Research Center
Graphic: Pew Research Center. VOA

The way their parents use social media is also causing stress for some teens.

“There is a problem happening right now with parents wanting to videotape their children and take pictures of their children in vulnerable moments. Like when kids are really stressed out, like when they’re anxious, when they’re upset,” says Mikalsen. “There’s a general lack of boundaries now because we’re all on social media…and I think it’s become a really big problem for kids that their information is just shared out there everywhere with everybody, causing stress and anxiety.”

Saoud says learning to express his feelings has helped get his anxiety under control, but not all young people feel free to be candid about their mental health.

“I don’t think a lot of my friends know because I don’t talk about it that often,” says Pisacano, the 19-year-old Florida college student. “It feels like they don’t want to hear me talk about it almost. It’s almost like I want to shield them from discomfort. I’m not uncomfortable talking about my mental health issues, but I think my friends are uncomfortable that I’m mentally ill.”

Taylor, the 17-year-old Massachusetts high school student, feels that she has generally accepted her anxiety as a fact of life. But she does feel regret when her mental illness stops her from doing things she would otherwise enjoy, like an exchange trip to Spain that she passed on due to her fear of flying.

“Even though I had a lot of great friends on the trip, I was still too afraid,” she says, “so in that sense, like I wish that my anxiety either manifested itself differently, or that I didn’t have anxiety, because I think it would have been really fun to go on the trip and it would have been an experience that I would remember forever, but usually I just kind of accept it as part of who I am.”

Also Read: New Zealand Government Puts Immediate Ban on Guns Used in Mosque Attack

Saoud is attending community college for now and intends to transfer to a four-year college soon. Still on medication and seeing a psychologist, he doesn’t say he’s ‘cured,’ but feels there’s been a huge improvement over when he hit bottom.

“Sometimes I get in my head about the future and I think, ‘Where’s the point?’…but those are the times that I really sit down with myself and think about what I have achieved, what I want to achieve, how much I have to be grateful for,” Saoud says. “I’d like to say I’m hopeful. I really do believe that I have a lot of potential for the future.” (VOA)