A recent contest held by the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation awarded first place to a device called Wellness At Your Fingertips. The Scattergood website describes it as a “tablet based screening tool used to identify signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions.” What is it? A system designed to uncover signs of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and even alcohol abuse. And where is this high-tech piece of machinery, you ask? In a QCare clinic inside a ShopRite, a Philadelphia grocery store; if all goes according to plan, you may soon see one in a department store near you.
Wellness was a team effort developed by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS) and Screening for Mental Health (SMH). Though the tablet interface is new, the diagnostics the machine uses were developed by SMH and have been in use since 1991. The DBHIDS commissioner put the project goals in simpler terms: “Too often we’re asking people to go to mental health clinics. What we’re doing is we’re going where people are.”
It’s not as strange as it sounds, and the pedestrian placement of the technology is kind of the point. The Scattergood contest had three goals for design applicants: to improve public awareness of effective treatment, to make it easier to find care and to reduce the financial barriers to treatment. Finally, whatever was designed had to be instituted in a retail clinic, meaning a small health clinic in a larger store. Wellness conveniently does all four through a quick and anonymous questionnaire—and it’s all free.
The overall philosophy behind Wellness is that mental health treatment should be de-stigmatized and, in the words of SMH’s Candice Porter, treated with “the same gravity” as physical health. It’s certainly a noble goal, but there are sure to be skeptics; the screening questionnaires Wellness offers are available online, and glancing through them reveals a fairly simplistic assessment. Most of the symptoms listed will be familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class, and there’s obviously no replacement for one-on-one time with a therapist who can make a more nuanced diagnosis.
Access for Everybody
Still, what about those who haven’t gone to a psychology class? Part of the project’s self-described goals were to increase access to mental health in lower income areas—in other words, to specifically target people with the least access. This move could prove doubly helpful, as studies have shown that lower-income individuals may be more prone to certain mood disorders than other Americans.
On top of that, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16 million US adults had depressive symptoms within the past year, and many of that number didn’t seek treatment for their symptoms.
Spreading the Word, Not the Stigma
With the recent tragic death of Robin Williams—and the conversation it has inspired around depression—America seems to be on the precipice of a more productive conversation about mental health. While the Wellness device isn’t designed to be a cure or even a substitute for face time with a therapist, it’s a cleverly marketed way to get people to acknowledge symptoms of mental illness while cutting back on social stigma. The bigger issue, of course, is encouraging them to act. But even if they don’t, at least certain Philadelphians will have to see the machine every time they pass the bread aisle.
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