The Best (and Worst) That Mood-Tech Can Be

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When Ontario was first placed under lockdown in March 2020, I, like many other psych-service users found myself relying on Skype and phone sessions to reach my therapist. Admittedly, I already felt incredibly privileged to even have a therapist, and one that I really found helpful. Nonetheless, I found myself unhappy with, and limited by our virtual sessions. In order to complement these, I took matters into my own hands and scoured the Internet for the best smartphone applications (apps) to monitor Bipolar symptoms[1]. I eventually settled on eMoods Bipolar Mood Tracker, an app that promised to track my highs and lows in a clear and simple way and boasted over four thousand positive reviews on Google Play.

I clicked download.

I’m a tracker. I’ve been tracking my steps for several years now and I enjoy seeing the data, the graphs, and the changes that occur over time. Tracking has an affective turn for me – it feels good and exciting to see my steps go up throughout the day and to see the step counter remain high throughout weeks and months. The graphs show that I’m making progress, meeting my goals, or even surpassing them. I thought eMoods would be the same.

The Symptomatic Life

One of the most obvious limitations of most tracking apps is that their primary objective is to rigidly quantify a human experience and emotion. The free version of eMoods has a sliding scale for sleep, and a few other scales: depressed mood, elevated mood, irritability, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, and talk therapy[2]. You can also track your weight through the app as well as add any medications you were taking (supposedly to manage your Bipolar Disorder). While this is fairly expansive (the paid version has higher degrees of customization), the list itself frames your daily experiences exclusively as a collection of symptoms.

The app framed any mood I experienced as a potential symptom of a depressive episode or a manic episode. Within the eMoods algorithm, I wasn’t experiencing happiness, only elevated moods, or sadness, only depressed moods. Any bout of frustration or (completely justified) anger was positioned as irritability – yet another symptom. At their core, tracking apps can have the potential to reduce anyone or anything to a collection of customizable scales – to digitize lives and quantify any experience. eMoods had no concern of whether or not I was a little peeved that I was now working from home due to a global pandemic – there was no COVID-19 scale. The app diligently tracked me (and my moods) as if I lived in a vacuum devoid of people, my environment, and a deadly virus. My Bipolar brain did not, and does not, live in a vacuum. 

Under a Digital Magnifying Glass 

The more I tracked, the more surveyed I felt. Every evening, at the same time I would receive my reminder to chart my symptoms. I am used to managing my moods as they come; taking a step back from work when I’m not at my best and jumping right into it when I feel a bout of energy coming on. I don’t tend to fixate on my moods and allow them to flow at their own pace, but the act of daily tracking and persistent reminders to do so brought my emotions to the forefront. I started to obsessively monitor every fleeting moment of sadness and happiness I was experiencing.

Was this a start of a manic episode?

Was I depressed for too long?

Having to input another day of “depressed” mood brought on feelings of shame and inputting “elevated mood” feelings of anxiety. I was no longer “living” my moods as organic and natural processes, but diligently monitoring symptoms. A symptomatic person is a sick person, I reasoned, and as time went on, I began to think of myself as “sick” and in need of monitoring. I was no longer someone living with somewhat unorthodox work patterns, but a patient.

Surveillance Without Borders

Displayed in front of me, little grey and blue graphs served as a constant reminder of my “broken” brain that needed to be monitored daily through a rigid set of criteria. eMoods suggests that these graphs can be presented to therapists and psychiatrists to facilitate a better understanding between client and service provider. That sounds like a report card, I thought at the time. But while a child may show their report card to only their parents (if at all), my mental report card was shared with Google Analytics and Google AdWords, among others. Sergey Brin and Larry Page knew exactly when Iwas depressed. This is all on top of the fact that eMoods had access to my GPS, my photo albums, and a history of other webpages I’ve visited, all while convincing its users that their data was “their own”.

This level of surveillance should be of concern with any user, but especially for psychiatric survivors and service users that have systemically been surveyed, monitored, and tracked. A complete lack of privacy is typical in an institutionalized setting, but apps such as eMoods have the potential to break down the physical walls of psychiatric institutions and extend this surveillance far beyond any physical space.

Feeling “sicker” than ever, and concerned with my data privacy, I deleted the app.

Not All Apps Are Bad 

While eMoods proved to be a flop for me, there were several other apps that got me through the pandemic. These were not made for nor by psych-service users, but rather for the simple purpose of connecting people. WhatsApp, Reddit, and Twitter. These three allowed me to connect and share experiences with others around the globe: academics, survivors, and friends. While these platforms are also not without shortcomings and some serious privacy concerns, they allowed me to share in a collective grief of the pandemic and validated my feelings of being lost and unmotivated. The conversations and exchanges that I found most rewarding had very little to do with symptom management but focused on the human experience: on bitter laughter, compassion, and peer support.

At their worst, new technologies in the form of tracking apps can extend psychiatric hold over survivors long after they’ve left inpatient facilities, they can also increase psychiatry’s catchment area and subject even more people to psychiatric surveillance. There are also numerous privacy concerns with such technologies, specifically, who will have access to this personal data? Will employers be able to monitor their employees’ mental states? Will this surveillance be normalized and incorporated into other institutions such as schools and universities or act as a far-reaching arm of psychiatric institutions? These are just some of the questions that need to be considered before we all hop on the tech bandwagon.

At their best, new apps can facilitate more conversations and more connections between Mad people, survivors, and service-users. These apps can connect us across the globe and allow a sharing of lived experience, information, and support; fostering a community that too, knows no physical bounds.

But for now, I’ll stick to tracking my steps.

[1] My references to my psychiatric “diagnosis” have no intention to instill faith and validity in psychiatric labels or intervention, but rather to provide a quick snapshot of the sorts of “symptoms” I experience. Even here, I am cautious to use the term symptoms as they are more akin to fluctuations in my emotions.

[2] It’s important to note that I did use the free version of the app and the paid version may have included more environmental and social factors to track.