Google has created a tool that tests for clinical depression

Google will now include an assessment quiz for users searching “clinical depression.”
Google will now include an assessment quiz for users searching “clinical depression.”
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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People often delay seeking treatment for mental health conditions like depression. The longer they wait to see their doctors, the worse the condition becomes, making it harder to treat in the future.

In an effort to encourage more patients to seek treatment sooner, Google announced Aug. 23 that it has teamed up with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an advocacy group, to create a simple tool for users to assess if they may be depressed. Now, when people in the US search for “clinical depression” on their phones, the typical “knowledge panel”—a container that displays company-vetted information on Google’s search results page—will come with an option to take a quiz that can assess the severity of symptoms. (Google says the quiz results will not be seen by anyone but the quiz-taker.)

Google’s quiz isn’t new. It’s a reskinned version of the 18-year-old PHQ-9 (pdf), used by physicians to help diagnose patients with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It asks about general interest in activities, eating and sleeping habits, and overall mood. Alone, the PHQ-9 won’t give a definitive diagnosis. Doctors use it in conjunction with physical exams to rule out other causes for patients’ symptoms, like a thyroid problem. Google says its incorporation of the PHQ-9 test in its search results is not meant as a final diagnosis, but as a tool to inspire people to have conversations with their healthcare providers if they were hesitant before.

Some estimates have suggested that patients will wait as long as eight years from when they start feeling bad to when they see a doctor. It’s hard to say why this is, but some of the thinking is that people don’t believe their symptoms are real. Rather than an illness caused by a neurological chemical imbalance, they see depressive symptoms as a “funk.” Ideally, this quiz will validate people’s symptoms when they search for “clinical depression”—provided they already suspect they may be depressed.

Google says the results of this quiz are completely private. That said, the searches themselves that lead to the quiz being displayed are still tracked on Google. For now, Google hasn’t publicly announced any projects that monitor online searches for signs of mental health issues. Other researchers, though, have been working on algorithms to track other forms of online behavior, like tweets or other posts on social media, that could one day lead to diagnostic tools designed to identify signs of mental health concerns, and prompt a person to seek help.