What your typos say about your mental health

We may be years from clinicians implementing mental health apps as diagnostic and treatment tools, but some of these instruments are already on the market.

Already, our Fitbits and Apple watches keep us on track to meet fitness goals. But what if technology could monitor our mental health as well?

That’s the question Wall Street Journal reporting assistant Laine Higgins asks in a recent article that focuses on iPhone app BiAffect, the foundation for a ResearchKit study on mood and cognition using mobile typing kinetics. And the answer, it seems, is that we’re getting very close to finding ways to intervene technologically before a manic or depressive episode proves debilitating.

“Rather than waiting until the patient shows up in somebody’s office for intervention, you could do the intervention in real time through the same device that’s monitoring their symptoms,” Olusola Ajilore, a member of the BiAffect team, told Higgins.

We may yet be years from clinicians implementing mental health apps as diagnostic and treatment tools, but some of these instruments of the future are at least already on the market. Pioneered by a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, BiAffect can be downloaded from your iPhone’s app store right now.

The application is for “anyone with or without a diagnosis of bipolar disorder who is an English-speaking US resident aged 18 or older and interested in a) contributing to research, b) learning about how their mood interacts with cognition, and c) understanding how keyboard usage patterns and dynamics can be related to neuropsychological or cognitive functioning,” according to BiAffect’s website.

Typos reveal this …

Though its task is weighty, the app aims to be as unimposing as it can be. The idea is that mood and cognition can be measured via typing patterns; people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder may make more typos, type more quickly, text infrequently or tremor while typing just before or during an episode.

After downloading the app, users are asked to join the BiAffect study, and their default keyboard is replaced by another one that measures their typing patterns. “It doesn’t track what you type, but how you type it,” Dr. Alex Leow, lead researcher on the project, told Higgins.

A pilot study with 31 participants recently confirmed the BiAffect team’s hypothesis that typing and texting patterns can “predict depression severity” and “identify persons with bipolar disorder,” according to BiAffect’s website.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) supports the development of mental health-related digital tools that are evidence-based. Such solutions could have major benefits, including providing more people with mental health treatment by erasing some of the current barriers.

But users also“need to understand the potential implications of opening themselves to the release of data to a third party,” NIMH’s Adam Haim warned Higgins. Like with any app that collects data, there’s always the potential that information could be accessed by others, posing a privacy concern.

Regardless, it’s wild that the way we type or text can tell scientists so much about our psychology. So here’s to the mental health care of the future — apps and all.

Alexandra Villarreal|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at avillarreal@theladders.com.