Mobile phones join the fight against youth depression

Mobile phones are to be used in a 400 person study to determine how youth depression starts and develops. The researchers hope to use the results to create a mobile phone program to act as an early warning system for at-risk young people.

Capitalising on teenagers’ favourite accessory, Dr Sophie Reid from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute has worked with Harvard Medical School to design software that will monitor a young person’s mood and assess how they respond to stress. Initially, the program will be used in research to understand the development of youth depression; then, as a clinical tool to assist individual patients.

“Mobile phones will allow us to take brief, repeated assessments of how adolescents experience stress, and what they do when they’re feeling down. It will give us a unique insight into the beginnings of depression,” says Dr Reid. “A phone survey is much more attractive to young people than questionnaires or daily diaries.

“Depression affects 30 per cent of young people and can lead to suicide. There is a pressing need to understand the origins of adolescent depression, and to ensure that we have effective forms of prevention and treatment.

“Because young people don’t go to psychologists or GPs when they’re feeling down, we had to find a youth-friendly, non-intrusive method to study how they feel,” says Dr Reid. “And 85 per cent of young people own a mobile phone,” she says.

Interactive software is loaded onto a young person’s mobile, to collect information as they experience and respond to depression and stress. The program is being trialled at present with 40 young people. Then 400 teenagers will participate in a one-year study that the research team hopes will reveal the early warning signs of youth depression.

“Our long-term vision is to use the phone to help young people identify when they’re really low, and what is making things better or worse. The phone will also provide a menu of assistance and treatment options,” Dr Reid says.

In future, the program may be introduced to young people through their peers, teachers or GPs, as well as through internet sites such as ReachOut.

“Adolescent depression is a precursor of youth suicide and a major concern for society. We need new tools to help us identify and act on the early signs of depression,” says Professor Ian Hickie, Clinical Advisor to Beyond Blue, Australia’s national depression initiative.

The research is a joint initiative of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, The University of Melbourne, and industry partners, Object Consulting, and Harvard Medical School. The initial phase of this research is supported by Beyond Blue and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.

Sophie’s innovation has won her a place at Fresh Innovators—a national initiative to bring the work of 16 early-career inventers to public attention. After training in Sydney, the Innovators are talking to the media, schools and business about their ideas. One of the 16 will win a study tour to the UK courtesy of the British Council Australia.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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