More than 800,000 people die from suicide attempts each year, according to the WHO. Will a new social network and app for depression help save lives?
An experimental social network designed to help users lower their anxiety and depression has made PhD student Rob Morris a bit of a media darling lately. The MIT student’s digital health invention, Panoply, and its upcoming mobile app Koko, have landed Morris A-list coverage in Time Magazine and Wired Magazine among others.
And why not?
Morris grew up in Silicon Valley two streets away from the garage in California where Steve Jobs masterminded the disrupter of all disrupters, Apple.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology from Princeton under the tutelage of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, Morris began his graduate work at MIT and soon found the experience overwhelming.
Everyone around me was this brilliant coder and there was this expectation that if I had an idea, I could just whip up a platform instantly to test it, like anyone else..I thought I would never survive MIT. - fastcodedesign.com.
Beginner's bad luck
Morris grew depressed by his early mistakes and joined an online programming peer group called Stack Overflow for moral support.
The experience was so uplifting he began to wonder if he could create a similar type of online, interactive support tool, or app, for people with anxiety and depression.
Not telemedicine for mental health
Different from teletherapy, which matches therapists and patients remotely via technology, groups like Stack Overflow allow users to post comments, respond to questions and show comments by all members of the group, similar to Facebook.
The experience of posting our feelings, having others weigh in and provide different perspectives on the situation is a form of cognitive behaviour therapy known as “reappraising” that helps people see their situations in a new light, according to Morris.
Photo: Daniel Foster
The result is Panoply, a peer-to-peer social platform jointly administered by MIT and Northwestern universities. Panoply asks members to “think more flexibly and objectively about the stressful events and thoughts that upset them.”
Unlike Facebook, Panoply asks targeted questions deliberately designed to inspire users to communicate their feelings, and provides responsive feedback. All members of the group can see the interactions and weigh in with their own takes on the situation.
How it all began
Morris and his researchers set out to study 166 subjects who had shown symptoms of depression. They were asked to join Panoply and instead of being asked “What’s on your mind?” they were instead prompted with “What’s wrong?” an established technique called expressive writing.
For example, one user posted negative feelings about his roommate ignoring him when he walked through the door.
Posts like these triggered a three-tiered wave of crowdsourced action. The first person or two simply came by to lend support and sympathy (for his thesis study, Morris trained a group of workers from Mechanical Turk to pad the user base). A second wave read the entry and labeled specific places where the poster was distorting reality or thinking illogically. Then, a third group came and completely rewrote the initial story, casting the events in a less dire light. The system produced crowd-generated reappraisal unique to every dark thought. - wired.com
By giving a voice to their morbid thoughts, users were able to express their emotions in a more substantive way and fundamentally begin to change their thinking.
The new tool yielded better outcomes across the board, but it had particular advantages in two areas: One was in training subjects to use a therapeutic technique called cognitive reappraisal, and the other was in improving the mood of subjects with more severe symptoms. - fastcodedesign.com.
Commercial application coming
Although Panoply and its mobile app Koko are still being developed for commercial use, Morris says he knows they work.
Even a Stanford University psychology professor, James Gross, who has studied cognitive reappraisal, is enthusiastic about its future.
What I like about the crowdsourcing idea is that it’s sort of tackling two things in a nice way. One is that reappraisal, although powerful, can break down when you most need it. And so this is saying, ‘Hey, instead of relying on intrinsic regulation, let’s try extrinsic regulation, where we’re going to get some help from other people.’
But the second thing is that when you’re depressed, you can withdraw from other people. So now you’ve got this double whammy, where you’ve got a high level of negative emotion, making it more difficult to reappraise, and you’re isolating yourself from other people, which means that you’re not going to be as likely to get extrinsic regulation. What they’ve done is nicely address both of these issues by saying, ‘Hey, we can help with reappraisal, even if you’re feeling a bit depressed, by helping you leverage outside input that you wouldn’t otherwise get. I think this is a promising approach.
Since suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, and someone dies from suicide every 13 minutes, perhaps Panoply and Koko may just help. It will be interesting to watch for the debut of the tools when they finally hit the marketplace.
Morris’ study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
You can also hear from Morris himself in this article, which he wrote for the Huffington Post.
Credit: Rob Morris