Voice tracking app could detect depression, scientists say

Scientists have revealed they’re planning to create a smartphone app that detects if someone’s depressed based on changes in their voice. 

Speech coordination changes when a person becomes depressed, according to the researchers, at the University of Maryland.

Depressed people cannot think as fast, and their speaking rate is slowed with more and longer pauses than if they are not depressed, they say. 

Therefore, a voice detection app using deep learning – a type of machine learning based on artificial neural networks – could help detect such traits, which can often be subtle.

The app could be recommended by mental health therapists to their patients, who would submit video and audio updates on their mood at home, which the technology would then assess.

This would help patients and those around them to stay informed about potentially life-threatening changes to their mental health. 

An app that uses deep learning could be used to assist mental health classifications, experts at University of Maryland say (stock image)


Deep learning is a form of machine learning concerned with algorithms. 

It is a field which was inspired by the human brain and focuses on building artificial neural networks.

It was formed originally based on brain simulations and to allow learning algorithms to become better and easier to use. 

Processing vast amounts of complex data then becomes much easier and allows experts to trust algorithms to draw accurate conclusions based on parameters the experts have set.

The project is being led by Carol Espy-Wilson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland. 

During the 180th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, which will be held virtually from June 8 to 10, Professor Espy-Wilson is discussing how a person’s mental health status is reflected in the coordination of speech gestures.  

The as yet unnamed app – which is still in the preliminary planning stages – would be recommended to patients by their therapists to help monitor them between therapy sessions. 

‘Ideally, therapists will give the app to patients who suffer with MDD when they are in remission or only have mild depression,’ Professor Espy-Wilson said. 

‘That is, they are in a state where they are likely to use it regularly, so their mental health status can be tracked, and the appropriate people will be alerted if the app detects that the severity of the depression is increasing.

‘The point is to alert the therapist if a patient needs to be seen so that they don’t get severely depressed and possibly decide to commit suicide.’ 

The user would sign on to the app on their smartphone, which would then ask some basic questions about how they have been feeling physically and emotionally the past week. 

The app could be recommended by mental health therapists to their patients, who would submit video and audio updates on their mood (stock image)

The app could be recommended by mental health therapists to their patients, who would submit video and audio updates on their mood (stock image)

Users would answer the questions verbally, and their speech would be recorded. The smartphone may also capture video of the user as they talk, if they opt to have their camera switched on.

‘We will look at their articulatory coordination, language and facial movements to determine depression severity,’ Professor Espy-Wilson told MailOnline.

‘If there has been a change that is concerning, then the proper people will be notified – e.g., therapist, patient and their caregiver. 

‘We have to do simulations and a clinical trial to work out all of these details and understand the best way to share information.’

Professor Espy-Wilson also said her team is still working on developing a system that can not only tell if the person is depressed, but the severity of the depression too – so either mild, moderate, severe or very severe.

Analysing the facial movements of the subject, if they’ve switched on their camera, will also help with a diagnosis. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 264 million people worldwide have major depression disorder (MDD) and another 20 million have schizophrenia. Both are among the most common precursors to suicide.

A 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that suicide is the second-leading cause of death in youth and young adults between 10 and 34 years of age in the US. 

It’s also the second-leading cause in the country of death of black children between 10 and 14 years of age and the third-leading cause of death for black adolescents between 15 and 19 years of age. 

In the UK, there were 5,691 suicides in England and Wales and 833 suicides in Scotland in 2019, according to the Samaritans.  

One in 10 people had suicidal thoughts by the end of the first six weeks of Britain’s lockdown, University of Glasgow academics revealed last year.     

Samaritans called Glasgow’s findings ‘stark’ and said they ‘leave us with no doubt Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact on the nation’s mental health’.  

What is depression? 

While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months on end.

Depression can affect anyone at any age and is fairly common – approximately one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their life. 

Depression is a genuine health condition which people cannot just ignore or ‘snap out of it’.

Symptoms and effects vary, but can include constantly feeling upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

It can also cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, tiredness, having a low appetite or sex drive, and even feeling physical pain.

In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.

It is important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy or medication. 

Source: NHS Choices 

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