Mental health researchers are harnessing the power of crowdsourcing — and the smartphone — to learn more about mental illness and hopefully help people in the process.
In an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project, an Australian non-profit launched an app called “How Is the World Feeling?” Their goal was to encourage people around the globe to share their moods during the week of Oct. 9-16.
They wanted to see, in real-time, the “where, when and why” of emotions.
Ending up with around 11,000 users, the project demonstrated yet another way that technology may be used to improve mental health around the world. The project captured almost 59,000 emotions from participants in 100 countries.
“Access to such a large, international set of data means unprecedented understanding of mental health across an extremely vast range of demographics and geography,” the app’s creators explained on their website.1
“How Is the World Feeling?” was an undertaking of Spur Projects, a non-profit organization working to reduce the rate of suicide in Australia. Its website talks about reducing suicide among men, specifically. Spur Projects uses frank language and unusual approaches to spur conversations about mental health. “We engage people without them even realizing it’s for their mental health,” they boast on their site.2
“Suicide is a worldwide epidemic with over 800,000 men and women taking their own lives each year,” the app’s website reported. “That’s more than breast cancer, violence, war or leukemia, just to name a few. Poor mental health is a major challenge both socially and economically.”
Often, poor mental health is due to “catastrophizing” or missing the big picture. “As humans, we tend to ‘group’ our emotions,” Spur Projects explains. “For example, when you get home from work, it’s common to sum up the day in one word, like ‘stressful,’ ‘productive,’ etc. However, in reality, we experience a huge range of emotional nuance throughout the day.”
Participants logged, on their phones with the click of a button, whether they were feeling happy, sad, angry, anxious, powerful or peaceful at any given time.
The numbers from How Is the World Feeling (which can be downloaded for Android and iPhone for free and used as a personal mood tracker) are still being crunched. But preliminary data show that findings can be used to target interventions and support for specific groups at specific times.
For example, men in Australia between the ages of 18 and 22 are most anxious on weekday mornings while commuting to work. Women, on the other hand, have anxiety peaks mid-day and at the start of the week.
Across the board, people felt most “powerful” during working hours.
In terms of all 58,000 emotional impressions gathered, the breakdown was as follows: Peaceful (18,981), happy (15,666), anxious (11,856), sad (6,869), angry (2,979) and powerful (2,528).
Of course, the results can’t be regarded as scientific or representative of any group. But they could be if everyone on earth (or even just people in mental health treatment, for example, or groups known to be at risk for mental health issues) had a smartphone and regularly used such an app.
Participants who regularly log certain patterns of emotions will cause the app to prompt local support.
“The level of data and insight is invaluable to mental health organizations, business and government – helping them to create more effective, targeted resources and tools,” Spur Project reported. “All data is completely open-source, meaning any individual, NGO (non-government organization) or business can utilize the information gathered. It should be noted that no personally-identifiable information is collected from any participant.”
After the week-long experiment concluded, Spur Projects hosted a two-day “Hackathon” in Brisbane, Australia, where analysts, designers, health professionals and entrepreneurs gathered to figure out how to best use the data.
A team called Cross PolleNation created a project called HotPot that will use both online and offline strategies to bring people together at meal times. The idea came from data gathered during the experiment that showed a correlation between loneliness and mental health.
“The ability to see, in real-time, how other people are feeling normalizes the extremely broad range of emotions that are experienced every second of every day,” the app’s website explains. “To improve anyone’s mental health, two things need to happen. People must first actually be aware of their own feelings and emotions. People then need to take some sort of positive action if changes need to be made. This may be as simple as sharing their feelings or perhaps looking at more formal support. How Is the World Feeling? provides a platform for both.”
Other ideas included using real-time data to reduce anxiety among college students, using gaming to educate children about mental health, and providing ways for the gay and lesbian community to find inclusive places of worship.
“The best part of an event like this is just the immense variety of ideas that are generated,” Spur Projects CEO Lee Crockford said in a news release.3 “There are certainly a number of ideas that we will back and help bring to life.”
1.How is the World Feeling? Retrieved Nov. 5, 2016, from http://howistheworldfeeling.spurprojects.org/about/
2.Spur Projects. Retrieved Nov. 5, 2016, from http://spurprojects.org/
3.Using Data to Hack a Better Future for Mental Health. (2016, Nov. 1). Retrieved Nov. 5, 2016, from http://www.howistheworldfeeling.spurprojects.org/media/SpurProjects_MediaRelease_161031.pdf
Written by David Heitz