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Smart technology and mental health – how modern gadgets might help

31 August 2023

Mental health problems can have a wide range of causes, such as issues in childhood, a long term health condition, or bereavement among many others. Lifestyle factors, such as diet, work, alcohol use can all play an important part, and unravelling the potential interactions of the manifold causative influences can be hugely challenging.

The advent of omnipresent smart technology such as smart phones and watches represents an opportunity for mental health researchers to potentially assess health behaviours and mental health interactions in real time, using ecological momentary assessment (EMA), a method to gain understanding of the everyday lives of people with mental disorders which monitors mood, symptoms and experiences multiple times every day. 

Smart Technology for hard problems 

Dr Hannah Sallis, Lecturer in Psychiatric Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, is conducting new research which uses smart technology to identify mental health risk-factors. 

“Traditionally, we would use large cohort data, such as the Children of the 90s cohort or the MoBa cohort – ongoing studies of large groups of people,” Dr Sallis explains. “However, health behaviours and mental health are usually only assessed once per year at most, and the reports are both retrospective and subjective. We wondered whether we should be using wearable technology; smartwatches, or smartphones, to easily collect more detailed real-time data on how health behaviours and mood change throughout the day.” 

Public consultation 

Dr Sallis, along with colleagues Dr Robyn Wootton, Dr Chris Stone, Dr Andy Skinner and Professor Rebecca Pearson, originally wanted to collect pilot data at existing data-collection clinics which were taking place in the summer of 2021, but due to ongoing COVID disruption and other extenuating circumstances, the team conducted more in-depth consultation with stakeholders, including those with lived experience. 

“We decided to expand the public involvement aspect of the project,” said Dr Sallis, “and took our research into the wider community: we took the University of Bristol’s mobile lab around the city of Bristol and surrounding areas; to festivals, community groups and local parks.” 

This helped the team to understand public perceptions towards the use of technology in monitoring mood and behaviour throughout the day, whether or not this was acceptable, and how to involve a diverse group of people in their research. They also set up a database of email addresses for people interested in taking part in subsequent studies. 

Proper protocols 

“This way, we produced a protocol that is relevant to our target sample and we could ensure that data collection will be conducted appropriately and sensitively,” said Dr Sallis. “Speaking to a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds helped us design a study which reached a diverse range of participants who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be approached.” 

The team’s findings shaped the design of the pilot study, data collection for which is close to completion. The findings from the study fed into a 2023 grant application to the Wellcome Discovery Award. 

New projects 

“The main idea for this – and other studies we have planned – is to produce protocols which can inform future EMA (Ecological Momentary Assessment) data collection on mood using smart technologies in large cohort studies” says Dr Sallis. 

“We’re also working on a project that will use novel interdisciplinary methods to identify risk-factors for mental health, the way other health behaviours and mental health interact in real time, through passive detection of smoking, sleep and activity – as well as questions around alcohol consumption.” 

“In this way, we hope to help uncover new treatment plans, coping mechanisms and preventative strategies to help reduce the impact that mental health problems have in our communities”.

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