By Andrea Patane
One out of three men and about 40% of women experience a major depres-
sive episode at least once in their life. In the UK, affective disorders (that is
anxiety, depression and stress) are the leading cause of sickness absences from
work, with 70 million days lost each year and an estimated cost of 2.4 billion
However, only about 37% of the affected people actually seeks help
from professional healthcare. A low-cost easy-to-use technology has the poten-
tial to reduce associated costs, increase the coverage of treatment delivery, and
especially lead to improved quality of life for clinical and non-clinical population.
Smartphone apps for physical health are already changing the way in which
we tackle problems such as weight management and chronic-illness monitoring.
The key principle is that smartphones are always with us and have access to an
incredible range of personal information; such as calendar entries, e-mails, calls,
location and activity sensor information. Using cutting-edge machine learning
techniques, these data can be exploited for automatic, real-time and personalised
deliveries of advanced psychological therapies and constant user support.
Innovative smartphone technologies
I had an opportunity to try some of the early smartphone technologies for
mental health and well-being as part of my involvement as ESR/PhD in the
first AffecTech training event at the University of Lancaster. Namely, the mo-
bile apps Echo, PauseAble and Emotical were the subject during the first day of
discussions at the training event. Building upon psychological theories, data
analysis and user-centred design, these apps have the potential to deliver low-
cost, widespread treatment of affective disorders, and increase the well-being of
everyday users. Arguably, focusing on different techniques and on different user
populations, these three applications bring your smartphone a step closer to act
as your emotional diary and your meditation coach.
Echo is a smartphone application that allows users to record everyday expe-
riences, rate those versus a well-being scale, and later reflect upon them. By
building upon the principle of technology mediated reflection, Echo daily prompts
the users with past experiences to be re-evaluated; acting as an active personal
PauseAble is an app that brings movement-based meditation in the realm of
mobile devices. The user gently glides her/his finger across the phone screen
as “beautiful visuals and melodic sounds focus and guide you to mindfulness”.
Through constant feedback PauseAble teaches the user mindful movements,
actively acting as your meditation coach.
Emotical app associates the user mood states with calendar entries and user’s
preferences, building a personalised model of the evolution of mood as a function
of time and future scheduled events. After profiling the user for a two weeks
period, the app actively suggests activities that have proven to be
beneficial for users which share similar life-styles.
The potential of readily available technologies
Several research studies have demonstrated the effect of these (and similar)
technologies in improving the well-being of a number of everyday users; empir-
ically proving the potential of readily available technologies in improving the
self-understanding of ourself and the quality of our life. However, those all de-
pend upon the user thoroughly recording and evaluating events as they happen
as well as understanding what exactly are the main drivers of his/her own mood;
and these inevitably lead to record gaps, inaccuracy/inconsistency and a high
degree of subjectivity. Through an interdisciplinary approach that brings to-
gether researchers in human computer interaction, computer science, electrical
engineering, neuroscience and clinical psychology, the AffecTech research net-
work is looking at and developing technologies that allow smartphones (and/or
smart-wearables) to automatically capture and objectively quantify the user
affective state, as well as identify mood regulation and successful regulation
strategies used in our daily life.
The design of techniques that are smart and adapt their behaviour to their
user affective states, and in turn help in triggering user behavioural changing,
would bring low-cost technology for mental health up-to-date with those that
already exist for physical health; and would bring smart technologies a step
closer to, in a sense, to acting as a supporting friend.
About the author
Andrea Patane (pictured) is involved in the AffecTech project as an Early Stage Re-
searcher PhD Fellow based at the Department of Computer Science of the Uni-
versity of Oxford, where he is a member of the AIMS Centre for Doctoral
Training. Working under the supervision of Professor Marta Kwiatkowska, his
role in the AffecTech project is to develop personalised technologies for stress
monitoring and regulation.
AffecTech (personal Technologies for Affective health) is established with sup-
port from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by
European Commission H2020. The AffecTech project is committed to raising
awareness about mental health issues, and in 2017 is supporting WHO’s World
Mental Health Day.