May 27, 2019

Crowdsourcing Mental Health

Category: New Trends
Stephen Schueller headshot

It is rare when a young person, suffering from stress and depression, asks an adult for help. But, seeking assistance through digital means is not uncommon.

Young people don’t want to be told what to do, says psychologist Stephen Schueller.

That’s why seeking information online, either through peers or apps can be useful and helpful, especially for those not prone to seeking professional help in the form of one-on-one therapy.

Research shows that nearly 70 million Americans each year experience depression or anxiety. And, 76 percent of 14- to 22-year-olds with depressive symptoms use health-related mobile apps, according to a recent survey by Hopelab.

“Some of the things these young people said they were particularly interested in were connecting with other people with similar concerns or reading other people’s stories. It seems youth really want to find ways to connect to each other around areas of need,” says Schueller, a UCI assistant professor of psychological sciences, who is working on developing and evaluating a technology-based intervention that uses crowdsourcing to help provide evidence-based intervention strategies for anxiety and depression. Crowdsourcing is the practice of mobilizing  people online to work together and accomplish tasks.

Current treatments for depression and anxiety, such as psychotherapy, are insufficient to meet the need, as nearly 80 percent of people with a diagnosable mental disorder receive no treatment whatsoever, Schueller explains. So, an online tool could potentially help millions of people.

“Peer approaches, like crowdsourcing, might be especially relevant to kids who might be more likely to follow through on interventions that stem from people like them and from similar age groups,” Schueller says.

His project is being funded by a three-year $680,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. He is teaming up with Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, to build a platform for online intervention.

“People are using technology to learn things about themselves, and they’re trying to find out what technology might be able to help them,” Schueller says. “Building a platform to help people with mental health issues is one way to reach millions of people.”

Mental Health America offers an online screening questionnaire that 3,000 people visit daily. More than 5 million people have been screened in the past few years. They answer questions about various issues, such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders and other mental health problems.

The platform, Schueller explains, “will connect to the screening portal to be able to understand what the issues are that people are suffering from and offer help through crowdsourcing.”

Only about 18 percent of the people who take part in the Mental Health America screening say they want a referral to a traditional face-to-face mental health provider, he says. “But, 50 percent say they want some sort of digital tool to help self-manage or address the symptoms that they’re experiencing. There are a lot of people who don’t want to see psychologists. They prefer digital support.”

Through technology, “we can expand the menu of options that are available to people to help them,” says Schueller, who leads PsyberGuide, a project funded by One Mind that helps people navigate the mental health app marketplace.

“Interventions can be presented through apps or websites and people can use them and benefit,” he says. “What’s exciting about this project is the potential for scalability. One in four people will experience a mental health issue in their life so there’s this huge population that could be mobilized to benefit from these things. A crowd-powered platform could be scaled without sacrificing efficacy, effectively harnessing the wisdom of millions to treat millions.”

Banner image: Stephen Schueller | Photo by Patricia DeVoe/UCI