Lie down and tell the app what’s wrong

The therapist in your pocket.
The therapist in your pocket.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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Your phone may soon be able to tell if you’re depressed—and maybe even help you feel better.

Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that vocal patterns change as feelings of depression worsen, and they suggest the world is not too far away from a computer program that can analyze your speech to assess the state of your mental health. The researchers used recordings from six patients and compared the patients’ scores on the Hamilton Depression Scale, finding a correlation between depression and some specific acoustic properties.

“When patients’ feelings of depression were worst, their speech tended to be breathier and slower,” the researchers said.

The acoustician who led the study, Carol Espy-Wilson, says that she and her colleagues want to turn the findings into a Siri-like interactive technology that will appeal to teens and young adults, a particularly vulnerable group for mental health problems. “Their emotions are all over the place during this time, and that’s when they’re really at risk for depression,” she said. “We have to reach out and figure out a way to help kids in that stage.”

The team also hopes that by receiving regular feedback based on the sound of their voice, vulnerable people who may not realize they’re depressed will recognize the signs and seek care. It could also lead to more interaction between therapists and patients.