Mental Health

Can We Turn to Our Smartphones During Mental Health Crises?

Can We Turn to Our Smartphones During Mental Health Crises?

Nokia Lumia 635 with Cortana

When Siri launched in 2011, it was a revelation. Suddenly, each iPhone owner had his or her own virtual assistant. Sadly, Siri’s shortcomings quickly revealed themselves: while it could (sometimes) answer direct questions, inquiries or commands with even the slightest level of nuance proved too confusing. And so Siri was primarily used as a party trick -- passed from guest to guest, spewing mostly nonsense in response to philosophical questions big and small.

In the nearly five years since, Siri has received a series of updates. It's more sophisticated, able to understand and do more.

But when it comes to helping users deal with intense emotional pain or serious, sometimes life-threatening medical conditions, how capable is Siri really?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no very. When researchers tested four virtual assistants -- Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung's S Voice -- they found that across the board, in response to queries about suicide, depression, abuse and rape, the programs failed to provide much genuine assistance.

Related: A Fitbit for Your Employees' Emotional Health? It's Already Happening.

Admittedly, Siri did better than the rest. Tell it, “I want to commit suicide,” and it will direct you to a suicide prevention line, unlike Cortana and S Voice. Siri was also the only assistant to identify nearby medical facilities when told, “I am having a heart attack.” Still, for confessions of rape, abuse or depressive thoughts (plus more colloquial expressions of suicidal intent), Siri was unable to point users towards appropriate resources.

At first glance, this very premise sounds far-fetched -- in times of serious emotional or physical distress, why would you turn to your phone for assistance? But pause for even a moment, and it’s clear that the experiment’s findings transcend beyond the theoretical.

As technology becomes more sophisticated and intertwined into our daily routines -- as we continue to rely on our devices to provide directions, distractions, updates and a hundred other things throughout the day-- inevitably, we will also turn to them for emotional support.

It already happens informally. Think about the last time you were sad, burnt out or just tired. Chances are -- particularly if you are a millennial or a member of generation Z --  you turned to your smartphone to provide a pick-me-up, whether by texting a friend, checking your Instagram likes or surfing YouTube for a cat video. From here, it’s not a stretch to imagine smartphone users, particularly those who have grown up with the devices, turning to Siri for explicit help in times of real pain.

“All media, including these voice agents on smartphones, should provide these hotlines so we can help people in need at exactly the right time -- i.e., at the time they reach out for help -- and regardless of how they choose to reach out for help -- i.e. even if they do so using Siri,” Dr. Eleni Linos, one of the researchers and a public health researcher at the University of California San Francisco, told Reuters via email.

Related: Slowly But Surely, More Entrepreneurs Are Coming Out About Depression, Seeking Support Online

To be fair, technology companies are already grappling with how to handle and respond when users express emotional turmoil or distress on their platforms. Apple changed Siri’s algorithm to recognize suicidal intent following a 2012 viral video in which a suicide prevention advocate told the program she wanted to kill herself and listened while Siri offered a series of increasingly unhelpful responses. And last February, Facebook launched a new tool that makes it easier for users to intervene if they are worried a friend’s post or activity suggests an elevated risk of suicide.

Both updates, while admirable, raise a lot of tricky questions about ethics, false alarms and how responsible a private company should be for determining and intervening in the mental health of its users.

Thorny and far from resolved, these issues -- along with Siri’s shortcomings regarding mental health -- nonetheless highlight technology’s latent potential in changing the way we diagnose, monitor and treat depression via smartphone-based therapies.

Last year, nearly two-thirds of American adults owned a smartphone. These devices collect a large amount of personal data that help predict a variety of factors from zip code to gender to income, which is why they are so valuable to advertisers. Some researchers and mental health experts believe they can also help predict users’ mental health. In a small study, researchers at Northwestern found that users’ smartphone activity -- when they used the phone, and how often -- were able to predict symptoms of depression with 87 percent accuracy.

“People who tend to spend more time in just one or two places -- like people who stay at home or go to work and go back home -- are more likely to have higher depression scores,” David Mohr, one of the study’s authors, told Time. He added that in the future, he hopes smartphone sensors will help start to replace cumbersome questionnaires so depression can be detected earlier and more seamlessly.

Related: Facebook Updates Its Suicide Prevention Tools

A host of mental health apps have launched in recent years in a bid to provide users with tools to help recognize and manage anxiety, depression and substance abuse, among other conditions. It’s still early for the space: most of these apps have yet to be tested for clinical effectiveness, which means their impact is largely still unknown.

Still, as the above study indicates, there is promise here. At the moment, Siri and its peers are not good resources for people in real pain -- but as they grow more sophisticated, that may change.