Guest Column | June 8, 2020

Mental Health Quantified: How Technology Measures The Impacts Of COVID-19

By George Eleftheriou, Founder and CEO, Feel

COVID 19 Coronavirus

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, people are increasingly looking at statistical data to understand how the situation is affecting all of us mentally. Research already shows the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to increase suicidal death exponentially. While public perception around the stigma of mental health has transpired for many years, new research has begun to quantify the real impact of mental health on the human psyche and body, much like weight gain is aligned with physical health.

For decades, mental health was viewed as inequivalent to physical health based on the inability to measure and assess mental wellness as quickly as you can cite a broken bone, or witness signs of a heart attack or stroke. With this, the road to creating homology between the two has been somewhat of an uphill battle. Historically, standard mental health assessments involved meeting with your physician and answering questions about your mental illness symptoms, in conjunction with a physical examination. While these measures are still relevant and vital to assessing a person’s mental state, technology is rising to meet the needs in helping to calibrate mental wellness in real-time. 

So, what is technology really telling us about COVID-19’s impact on our mental health?

Wearable devices and applications are being created to monitor critical indicators of a person’s mental and emotional state. The hope, in turn, is to supply new insights into situations like COVID-19 and the personal impact, social distancing, grief, anxiety, and economic stress.

By tracking physiological indicators of changes in people’s mental and emotional state, technology is shifting the tide in how users can quickly assess and find help during real-time and post-traumatic stress-induced situations.

To understand feelings, before and during the COVID-19 lockdown, data was collected between February 2020 and April 2020 (eight weeks), by Sentio Solutions from a random sample group of participants in Europe and the USA. Participants were analyzed based on changes in electrodermal activity, heart rate variability, and skin temperature.

Signals collected from the sensors were tracked as participants identified and confirmed the specific emotions they were experiencing, rated the intensity of the emotion, and detailed what triggered each feeling during the lockdown.

Results revealed sudden and significant changes to those physiological signals, indicating that emotional changes or new emotions, from the participant, were being experienced.

Those emotions included vulnerability, emptiness, terror, fearfulness, and misery. Initial findings revealed those negative emotions almost doubled and became more intense. More than 60 percent of those negative emotions increased in intensity and reached a level of seven or more on the standard scale of 1-10. The respective number before the lockdown was less than 30 percent. 

While no specific triggers were noted, these findings correspond to other, more subjective government studies of the effects of financial adversity and health concerns. Add to that the pressures of confinement, home-schooling and generally supervising children, and separation from friends and loved ones, and the findings are not surprising.

Still, the ability to specify and quantify such emotions creates a unique use of healthcare wearables. Especially significant is the application of such technology to people’s everyday subjective experiences. The ability to quantify psychological state changes with statistical specificity derived from real-time data opens the way to a whole range of possible applications. 

The random sample group was aided by an existing database of normative data. Still, this was the first time the psychological effect of a typical variable—the lockdowns and negative news cycles—across multiple individuals was tracked and monitored. 

It’s not surprising that periods of enforced lockdown have affected people’s mental health, nor is it surprising that new negative emotions have emerged as a result. What is clear is that the effects on our mental health will be around for many years to come, and the need for quantitative results along with increased and democratized access to mental health support is more significant than ever.

About The Author

George Eleftheriou is the founder and CEO of Feel.