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Sharing stress data ‘can enable new mental health support’

Creation of a new app enables new ‘caring through data’ approach to mental health care

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Data around stress collected through wearable tech and shared within a person’s close network could enable new forms of mental health care, new research suggests. 

The study investigated whether automatically-tracked information about stress could help a small group of trusted people understand each other’s changing mental health and offer appropriate support. 

The approach was based on previous ‘caring through data’ studies around fertility and blood glucose, which yielded positive results. 

The team of computing scientists from Scotland and China developed a smartphone app called IntimaSea to support the study, which captures heart rate variability data from users’ smart watches and displays it in a graphical interface showing waves lapping on an island shore.

Each user picks a different marine animal as their user avatar. When users’ stress increases – measured by a fall in their heart rate variability – their avatar sinks further below the waves, allowing other users to see that they might need some support. 

In response, users can offer help in the form of supportive text messages, emojis, photos, drawings, links to external content or calling up directly. They can assess the impact of their support by tracking the depth of other users’ avatars on their mobile device’s screen.

The researchers conducted two trials of IntimaSea – an initial two-week feasibility trial among the researchers themselves followed by a four-week test with volunteers recruited from the public. 

A total of 19 people split across nine groups of two to three people each participated in the trials. The groups included romantic partners, close friends and cousins. 

The data collected by the researchers, combined with interviews with participants after the study concluded, suggested that the app had a positive impact on users’ awareness of stress – not just the stress levels of other users, but also their own. 

The app’s simple graphical display helped users get a better sense of the group’s stress levels, and to make timely interventions to help when they saw dips in mood. They were more likely to make immediate contact when they could see that dips were occurring in real-time. 

Overall, users felt that IntimaSea offered them valuable new insights into the wellbeing of others, and a sense of collective responsibility to maintain the group’s collective mental health. 

Dr Xianghua (Sharon) Ding, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, led the research of IntimaSea. 

“Not everyone finds it easy to talk about their stress levels and their mental health, even with the people who are closest to them,” said Dr Ding. 

“IntimaSea was designed to take away some of that challenge by letting small groups keep tabs on each other and reach out with small displays of support. 

“The study suggests that was a success – it helped remove some of the challenge of expressing feelings for those users who sometimes struggled to do so, and offered new opportunities for people to communicate, either on the app or by by starting conversations in real life. 

“Now that we’ve demonstrated the potential of shared stress tracking for mental health support, we’re keen to build on these early findings. As a standalone app, IntimaSea requires users to actively decide to install it on their devices before they can engage with it. 

“If its functionaility could be built into the operating system of the device, or integrated into an already widely-used app like WeChat or WhatsApp, it would be much more likely to reach the kind of critical mass of users who would benefit from using it. 

“We hope that in future studies we can expand the scope of this initial study and further demonstrate the potential of this kind of caring-through-data approach to mental health.”

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