Panelists discuss shift to digital mental health testing

Mental health professionals are connecting with young adults through digital resources such as My Mood Monitor, or M3.

Photo by Sean Meehan Dr. Gerald Hurowitz speaking at in the forum at Howard University. // Photo by Sean Meehan

By Sean Meehan/Matters of the Mind

In a generation known for engaging in screen-to-screen contact, mental health experts are now reaching out to millennials on their preferred platforms. Psychiatrists and psychologists hope that presenting mental health screenings in an easy-to-use digital format will increase millennials’ awareness of their own mental health status and generate conversation about mental wellness.

Some resources were presented at Howard University’s mental health forum “Advances in the Next Generation of Digital Mental Healthcare Technology Solutions” on Friday, April 17. Experts and professionals in mental health and social work shared strategies for starting conversations about mental health, particularly in minority communities that are disproportionately affected.

Among these technologies is a test called M3 or My Mood Monitor, a quick 27-question survey designed to identify signs of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

About M3

Dr. Gerald Hurowitz, co-creator of the test and psychiatry professor at Columbia University says it helps people become more aware of their own mental wellness.

[The M3 Assessment screens for depression, anxiety, PTSD and bipolar disorder. Take it here.]

“We thought that having a single number as a major overall measure of your mental health was a useful thing in terms of uptake by the population,” Hurowitz says. “There’s a little bit of a buzz about a number for your mental health and people will actually start sharing their numbers back and forth.”

He and Dr. Beverlyn Settles-Reaves, research director at Howard University’s Department of Psychiatry, shared their research and experiences with the test at Howard’s mental health forum. They say the test aims to increase access to simple mental health diagnostic tools.

M3 was developed in 2003 by a team of clinicians and researchers, with Hurowitz among them. In 2010, a University of North Carolina study found that the test is a better assessment of mental health than the more common, single-diagnosis screenings, like the PTSD Checklist or the PHQ-9 for depression.

The M3 is available for clinicians and researchers to use, but there is also a free test online and a mobile app called depression check. These tools allow people to check up on their own mental illness without going to see their doctor.

The test scores individual’s mental wellness on a scale of 1 to 100. If a person scores a 33 or above, the test recommends that they take their results to their primary care doctor to discuss potential treatment options.

Simplicity in Numbers

This number was an important part of M3’s development from the beginning, Hurowitz says. He and his co-researchers noticed that having an easy number has helped people better understand their cholesterol, blood pressure and other physical ailments.

They wanted to make a screening measure that would give people that same level of clarity regarding mental health.

‘The test isn’t telling you yes or no, absolutely you have it […] It’s supposed to spur a discussion with your clinician.’

“Giving an objective measure is a little validating for some people,” Hurowitz says. “They see their score and say, ‘Yeah, it adds up, it said here that there might be a problem.’ Because otherwise they say, ‘I don’t know if this is that bad, how much should I worry?’ That’s a difficult thing for people to know.”

Settles-Reaves says she has used the M3 at Howard University Hospital community events. Having a number attached to mental wellness has helped people understand their own mental health status, she says. In her experience, it has made them more willing to discuss mental health with others or seek out help if needed.

But quantifying mental wellness has some potential pitfalls.

The M3 simplifies the mental wellness checkup process. But both Hurowitz and Settles-Reeves stress that while it’s helpful to make the test available to the public, it is not designed to diagnose patients or replace a conversation with a doctor.

Instead, the test is intended to make people more comfortable initiating a conversation with their doctor about their mental wellness.

Dr. Beverlyn Settles-Reaves heads the Howard Department of Psychiatry. // Photo by Sean Meehan

Dr. Settles-Reaves heads research the Howard Department of Psychiatry. // Photo by Sean Meehan

“The test isn’t telling you yes or no, absolutely you have it,” Hurowitz says. “It’s supposed to spur a discussion with your clinician.”

Hurowitz adds that the mechanization of mental health can be “dehumanizing,” and the test should not replace seeing a professional. According to this test’s creators, M3 is meant to spark discussion and identify potential problems as a precursor to seeking professional help if needed.

Future use

While the test is designed for anybody over 18, Settles-Reaves says that it is a particularly good way to attract millennials who like that they can take it on computers or mobile devices.

“Most of the young people that I’ve screened have said they felt it was difficult for them to talk about mental health,” she says. “I think it’s because technology has been infiltrating so much into their lives, and so much of their communication is with technology that they feel more comfortable with this.”

‘Most of the young people that I’ve screened have said they felt it was difficult for them to talk about mental health’

She adds that she’s had particular success reaching millennials with the M3 test at health and wellness expos, such as the Health and Fitness Expo hosted by NBC Washington in January.

The M3 still isn’t as widespread as single-condition screening tests, but Settles-Reaves says she has spearheaded efforts to use the test in various departments at Howard.

For example, she recommends using the test at the OB/GYN department of the hospital to screen for postpartum depression, for research in the psychiatry and sociology departments and as a measuring tool for the anthropology department.

Hurowitz says that he hopes that the spread of M3 in academic institutions will further prove the tests efficacy and eventually make it a common part of regular checkups.

“We’re expecting and hoping that it’ll become a universal screening instrument so everybody will use it,” Hurowitz says. “It’s so cool that it can expand beyond just purely the medical model, with other people wanting to do sociological or anthropological research. I think its accessibility is a really big part [of M3’s wide range of uses].”

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