Psychologists warn Google's depression-screening plan violates privacy and 'may in fact do harm'
Woman suffering from depression (Shutterstock)

A group of psychiatric professionals are taking exception to Google's plan to direct users to a depression screening questionnaire when they search the words "clinical depression" on their U.S. mobile phones.


Gizmodo.com said that the search engine behemoth received plaudits last week for its program, which automatically presents users with a depression screening questionnaire, then provides users at high risk of self harm or other destructive behaviors with "links to materials from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and telephone helplines."

Other tech companies are looking for ways to use mobile technology to address the mental health crisis currently facing a country where counseling and other mental health services are difficult to obtain and often prohibitively expensive even for people with health insurance coverage.

"Apple recently posted a job application for programmers with psychology and counseling backgrounds in order to turn Siri into a better therapist," wrote Gizmodo's Kristen V. Brown. "On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first mobile app for treating substance abuse—an app from Pear Therapeutics originally designed to be prescribed by a physician. The pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline inked a deal to create a 'digitally guided therapy,' one of many such ventures in the growing 'digital therapeutics' space hoping to move health apps beyond wellness trends."

However, a paper published this week by University of York psychologist Simon Gilbody said that there are dangers in relying on Google to diagnose patients' mental health. The diagnostic questionnaire presented to users is one that is commonly used by mental health professionals, but Gilbody says chances of a "false positive" are high, which can ultimately do more harm than good.

"Google’s initiative has been reported positively and uncritically despite bypassing the usual checks and balances that exist for good reason. It is unlikely that their initiative will improve population health and may in fact do harm," the paper said.

John Grohol -- director of the website PsychCentral -- said that the Google plan presents a number of serious problems on its face, not the least of which are privacy concerns.

“Google is a technology and marketing company that collects people’s data,” Grohol told Gizmodo. “It’s not really clear about how they would use this information. I wouldn’t want sensitive information like mental health to be in the hands of a marketing company.”