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Google to direct potentially depressed users to clinical screening test

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People using Google to search for “depression” will be directed towards a questionnaire to help inform them whether they could be suffering from the common mental illness.

According to Google, approximately five per cent of searches are health-related. For many common medical conditions, such as tonsillitis or depression, searching for information about the conditions brings up prominent lists of verified information from the Mayo Clinic about the conditions, the symptoms and the treatments.

Now, Google is taking a step closer to intervention, by directing users searching for terms such as “depression” or “am I depressed?” to a short questionnaire that could encourage users with low mood to seek medical help.

A link will appear in the Knowledge Panel – which appears at the top of the page for mobile users and the top-right of the page for PC users – reading “check if you’re clinically depressed”.

This directs users to PHQ-9, a clinical screening questionnaire with just nine questions, which tests possible severity of depression. It has been supported by a number of studies which have found it a quick, reliable way to detect signs of clinical depression.

Google has been working with the US National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the project.

NAMI have stated that the test is not a replacement for an appointment with a mental health professional, but could help people realise that they may need to find professional help. At present, fewer than half of Americans suffering from depression seek medical help, NAMI says.

In a guest post on Google’s blog they wrote: “We believe that awareness of depression can help empower and educate you, enabling quicker access to treatment.”

“And while this tool can help, it’s important to note that PHQ-9 is not meant to act as a singular tool for diagnosis. We hope that by making this information available on Google, more people will become aware of depression and seek treatment to recover and improve their quality of life.”

Vidushi Tekriwal, Google product manager, told the Financial Times that users filling in the test will not have their responses logged, and that the questionnaire would not be used for targeted advertising.

The tool will initially be offered to US smartphone users, but is expected to be rolled out to international users in coming months.

In March 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder and CEO, announced that the company was experimenting with artificial intelligence tools to identify users with suicidal thoughts, and offer them help. Facebook and other social media companies are frequently blamed for contributing to poor mental health among young people, particularly by exacerbating low self-esteem, poor body image and fear of missing out (FOMO).

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