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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

It might be too late to help Avicii but technology can help treat depression

Many tech companies have decided to tackle mental health issues leveraging digital data analytics and artificial intelligence, writes Olivier Oullier

It has been a tough year for EDM, with Swedish DJ Avicii taking his own life in April. So the Amsterdam Dance Event began with a discussion on mental health issues among DJs. Amy Sussman / AP
It has been a tough year for EDM, with Swedish DJ Avicii taking his own life in April. So the Amsterdam Dance Event began with a discussion on mental health issues among DJs. Amy Sussman / AP

"I have said: 'I'm going to die.' I have said it so many times. And so I don't want to hear that I should entertain the thought of doing another gig.”

These moving words are taken from Avicii: True Stories, a documentary about Tim Bergling, the Swedish-born electronic music producer turned superstar DJ who was plagued by depression before his tragic death in Muscat last month at the age of 28. Unlike the great majority of people suffering in silence from mental health issues, Bergling was very open about his struggle.

Yet, as the documentary last year revealed, despite being repeatedly vocal with his friends, family, his management and the public, he was not heard. He previously said: “They have seen how ill I have felt by doing it but I had a lot of pushback when I wanted to stop doing gigs.”

The World Health Organisation indicates that nearly 350 million people – equivalent to 5 per cent of the world’s population – suffer from depression, with an alarming 18 per cent increase over the decade from 2005 to 2015.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong link between depression, the largest single cause of disability and ill health worldwide, and suicide. Meanwhile the annual collective cost of workplace depression is $246 billion in Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa and the US, according to researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE).

The fact that more than half the people suffering from depression don’t receive proper treatment and physical health care in high-income countries (climbing to 90 per cent in low-income ones) does not make much sense, given the societal toll.

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One of the main reasons is that clinicians have a poor track record in identifying depression because of the lack of effective diagnostic tools to rigorously assess and manage this condition when the patient or a relative does not spontaneously seek for help. Primary care physicians can refer to a psychiatrist, leading to delays in treatment times. In addition, the lack of structured and standardised data to support decisions does not help at all.

Many tech companies have decided to tackle this issue leveraging digital data analytics and artificial intelligence. Mindstrong Health and Holmusk, a company that I advise, are two of them. Both companies rely on technology and deep learning to make good use of non-standardised databases of digital data such as electronic medical records or information from smartphones that people who volunteer in their studies agree to share. What is now known as digital phenotyping – the ability to identify behavioural, cognitive and emotional patterns, as well as some clinical symptoms thanks to digital data – provides for the first time rigorous and non-episodic data to monitor and manage mental health conditions.

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Mindstrong Health conducted clinical studies that allowed its machine algorithms to “show that specific digital features correlate with cognitive function, clinical symptoms and measures of brain activity”, a major breakthrough to understand the dynamics of mental health conditions on a day-to-day basis, thanks to smartphone data.

Holmusk’s MindLinc global database allows for evidence-based detection and treatment of mental disorders, thanks to a new breed of patient-reported outcome measures that rely, among other things, on natural language processing (NLP) and text predictics. The smart integration of contextualised behavioural and mobile neurotech data is paving the way for new evidence-based models, improving predictive analytics of how a mental health condition might evolve and therefore offer personalised care for people who suffer.

As a fellow DJ, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur working on democratising access to brain health and a father, I am still shaken and saddened by what happened to Avicii. People cared too much about him as a superstar DJ but not enough as Tim Berling, an individual struggling with anxiety and depression.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum