When you type in the word “depression” on Google, you might find resources explaining the disorder and its symptoms but soon you will also be prompted with a self-assessment tool. Google is partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to make depression screening a part of searches on the subject. Google announced that when you search for “clinical depression” you will have the option to tap a button saying “check if you’re clinically depressed” which will bring you to page with a questionnaire.
Although the health screening questionnaire is clinically validated to test a person’s likely level of depression, the assessment tool has already caused some controversy. Some mental health experts are worried that the tool will lead to overdiagnosis of depression and possibly over-prescription of antidepressant medications. One professor claimed that the Google tool was actually funded by the major drug company Pfizer which profits from sales of antidepressants.
The goal of Google’s assessment test is not necessarily to provide a diagnosis but to encourage people to take the results to a psychiatrist for a proper assessment. The search company asserts that they worked closely with NAMI to ensure that the questionnaire is accurate and useful. In a NAMI news release it was noted that 1 in every 5 Americans will experience an episode of depression in their lifetime while only half of them actually seek treatment.
NAMI’s intention in partnering with Google for the tool was to help people become more aware of depression and seek treatment instead of allowing the symptoms of their mental illness to worse over time. According to the organization, people wait an average of 6 to 8 years before getting professional treatment for symptoms of depression. The intention is to motivate people to get help if the quiz indicates that they might have some mental health issues that need to be addressed.
Mixed Response from Mental Health Experts
Some experts are on board with the assessment tool and others are concerned about the possible effects of people scoring high for depression on the questionnaire. While NAMI’s claim that the tool could help people take the extra step into getting the necessary help is promising for many experts hoping to reduce depression numbers, others worry that may lead to over-treatment. The test results include links to materials and phone helplines for people with higher scores to set up with treatment immediately.
Experts who believe the tool can be helpful emphasize the fact that it is not meant to be an actual diagnosis. People with high depression scores will only receive treatment if they are get a professional diagnosis from an actual psychiatrist. They believe people taking the quiz will simply be more informed and empowered to get the help they need.
Others in the field of mental health are concerned that unregulated screening could be ineffective and end up causing more harm than good. Some believe that Pfizer was involved in funding the tool and that data generated from the quiz could be used to market antidepressants. Google says that the questionnaire will not threaten privacy because it does not store or log any results.
Aside from privacy issues, some experts are concerned that people will take the quiz and mistake temporary psychological distress that they are experiencing in that moment with a more pervasive clinical disorder. Google has received some criticism from experts for bypassing the usual checks and balances that are in place for screening tools in order to prevent the risk of overdiagnosis. Certain clinicians even believe that this type of unregulated screening tool will cause harm rather than improve people’s health.
One of the criticisms of the questionnaire itself is that it uses outdated ways of thinking about mental health in assessing depression. It focuses on physiological and biomedical symptoms, placing an emphasis on dysfunction and framing distress from the outset as an illness. If someone is distressed following a certain event, they may score high on the quiz even though their symptoms may not be connected to an actual disorder.
Screening for Depression
Google and NAMI assert that their intentions for their screening tool are to get more people the help that they need for depression. Some experts argue that this type of screening is generally inaccurate and could lead to a lot of false positives. Others such as the US Preventative Services Task Force have found evidence that screening improves the accurate identification of patients with depression.
The tool is meant to educate users and prompt informed conversations with clinical professionals so that patients can get an accurate diagnosis. If people use the Google tool as a starting point for treatment that they really need then it could be helpful in preventing gaps in depression recovery. To prevent overdiagnosis and over-prescription of antidepressants people should follow up the test with an accurate clinical assessment from a professional.