Blogs and Articles

Blog 1: Once upon a time…

The beginning is always the most important part of any work. (Plato, The Republic)

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There is something magical and powerful while strolling in the forests of Germany. The German language describes this “being one with the forest” as Waldeinsamkeit. To me, this was one enlightening experience of contemplating and getting lost in one’s thoughts. Here begins my personal story on how the Psychologist in a Pocket began…

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So, it was in this atmosphere when the idea behind Psychologist in a Pocket was born. PiaP, for short, started out as a conversation piece between my husband, Jó, and me while wandering in the woods of Weinheim. It was sometime in 2010, when I was mulling over a career shift. At this point in my professional life, I had already gone through the gamut of it all: university professor, researcher, thesis-and student organization adviser, clinical psychologist, and guidance counselor. For a significant part of my career, I was all of these at the same time. From these work experiences, what can I bring here?

When Jó asked me what I want to do in Germany, I said I wanted to work on a topic that will combine both of our expertise – my training in clinical psychology and his knowledge of computer science. Culling from my background, I had recollections of former students who experienced depression and yet, did not seem to be depressed at all. Due to societal biases and judgments, these students preferred to “keep it all in” for fear of being seen as psychologically fragile and emotionally weak. Especially towards psychology students and professionals with a degree in psychology, there is a high expectation that we have a better handle with our personal issues.

It was also during this time mobile technology has been gaining ground. It was the Zeitgeist for the expansion of smartphone capabilities. Research on mobile health application (mhealth apps) development has started. Social networking was fast becoming the mode of interaction among the young. I thought: How can mobile technology play a role in mental health? Can smartphones detect depression? Would it be possible to identify the language of depressed individuals based on their short messages and social network postings? Since eliminating the prejudices against depression needs a certain cultural and societal upheaval (a herculean task, I admit), then how do we address the need for privacy of people with depression?

(When I used to teach psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and projective techniques, which include Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Test, I often mention that one’s cognitive processes and its products effortlessly “spill over” to our use of language, making both the speech and written word a fertile terrain for clinical and scientific scrutiny.)

Thus began PiaP as a research project. In 2011, it was introduced as a student research topic at COMSYS, RWTH Aachen University, with Sarah Winter developing the first prototype under Jó’s tutelage. Later that year, Paul Smith, another student, worked with us to refine PiaP as an entry to the 2013 Heritage Open mHealth Challenge (http://www.comsys.rwth-aachen.de/home/news-details/comsys-students-finalists-in-heritage-open-mhealth-challenge). Bouyed by the fact that we finished in the Top 5 (the only non-US competitor) in this competition and received positive comments, I started discussing with Jó the need to build on this early “success.” It took a little over a year before the “stars aligned” – as I described it then – when Tim Ix and Paula Glenda Ferrer-Cheng entered the picture as our thesis advisees. While Tim focused on the technical features of the PiaP, the focal point of Paula’s work was on the improvement and validation of the depression lexicon (psychological direction). Along the way during this research journey, we have met with other professionals who are interested in alleviating the obstacles posed by depression, especially in screening. As a result, we are currently collaborating with research groups and universities not only in Germany but also from other countries.

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I think it would not be presumptuous to say that we are all familiar with a depression story or two, since depression is a relatively-common mental health issue. We know individuals – family members, spouses, close friends, colleagues, students, acquaintances – and heard of famous personalities who, at least once in their lives, had been through a depressive episode or had depression for the most part of their existence. We may have our own private history of depression ourselves. With regard to suicide, studies have established its link with severe cases of depression. We have been shocked and saddened to hear of suicide or suicidal attempts of people we know and care about. Survivors tell us that suicide seemed to be the only viable solution in escaping life’s turmoil.

When we encounter stories such as these, we ask ourselves: Could we have known about their depression? Was I aware of my own depression? How could we help? During my low points, to whom can I turn?

Despite this blog as having a (sort of) “fairy-tale” feel to its title, depression is neither make-believe nor does it always have a “happy-ever-after” ending. Though PiaP started out as a research project in 2011, the personal accounts and private struggles of people with depression and their families continue to motivate us, the research team, to further the understanding of and to contribute to screening this global burden of disease, helping them reach their own version of “… and they lived happily-ever-after.” – Roann (16 May 2017)