Sane Australia launches bipolar app that detects onset of mania

Mental health organisation Sane Australia will soon be testing its bipolar app that collects data on an individual's interaction with their mobile device to predict the onset of mania.

Mental health organisation Sane Australia has developed a mobile application that can alert people living with bipolar mood disorder, as well as their nominated loved one or mental health professional, to the potential onset of mania -- thereby providing an important window for intervention.

The app works by monitoring the way a person living with bipolar interacts with their digital devices, and over time, behavioural patterns emerge that are matched against other benchmarks for well-being. When potentially unhealthy patterns are detected, the individual living with bipolar and their nominated trusted person are both notified so they can take action to prevent or lessen the severity of a manic episode.

"The service acts like a utility, alerting people to those patterns, and from those alerts, people can draw a range of inferences. For example, if over the last four days I've been engaging with the technology in my life to such an extent that demonstrates that I haven't actually slept more than a couple of hours a night for the last four nights, that would be a clear danger signal," Faruk Avdi, Sane Australia's director of digital, service design, and technology, told ZDNet.

"We're capturing a range of data points -- like accelerometer data, location data, and others -- that are available from the phone and we're using a rule set to infer certain types of patterns out of that based on knowledge of the individual."

The real-time data can also be shared with mental health professionals to help identify historical patterns and inform ongoing treatment.

"If a person had a manic episode three months back, they can look at data with their mental health clinician from that period of time. They can discuss what was happening in their life at that point -- such as whether they were on medication, what kind of medication, what kind of triggers there were -- and plan from there," Avdi said.

According to Sane Australia, around 1 in 50 Australians will develop bipolar disorder at some stage in their lives, and people living with bipolar are 15 times more likely to die via suicide.

Professor Philip Mitchell, head of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, said it's often the case that mania is detected when it's too late to take preventative action.

"This can have terrible impacts for not only the individual, but also for those close to them," Mitchell said. "Mania can lead to drug use, intense irritability, excessive spending, gambling, extreme sexual promiscuity, delusion, paranoia and hallucination, and can have consequences including employment loss, loss of savings, and relationship breakdowns."

Sane Australia is seeking 400 people -- 200 living with bipolar and 200 nominated loved ones or mental health professionals -- to take part in a three-month non-clinical trial of the app commencing in July. Initially, the app will only be available to use on Android smartphones.

"People already have such an intimate and all-consuming relationship with their mobile phones that we think there is going to be a lot of value in the first release of the app. You've got a range of applications that you use ... There's a lot of checking behaviour that we all engage in like checking the time on your phone or checking the weather," Avdi said.

"But beyond [the initial release] we'll be taking it to other operating systems and devices in a person's life such as tablets, laptops, desktop computers, and wearables. The picture of technological interaction will grow richer over time with use."

Avdi said Sane Australia will be looking to adopt big data analytics and machine learning technologies once there is a substantial user base and large volumes of data are being captured.

The app, which has been funded by Gandel Philanthropy, will also address the onset of depression, though it will initially focus on the manic part of the spectrum.

"There's evidence that online-based therapies and services like Sane Forums, which is a peer-to peer support community, provide real and concrete benefits and support for people living with complex mental illness. But we're only just scratching the very top of the surface in terms of the potential for how we can deal with mental illness -- both its management and its detection," Avdi said.