At the end of August, Google decided to make available directly on its site (through a “knowledge panel”) the ability to take a depression screening quiz. We know a thing or two about online depression screening quizzes, because back in 1996 I put one of the first interactive depression screening quizzes online, long before Google even existed.
Here’s the thing… Depression screening tests — like the PHQ-9 that Google is now offering on its website — are super helpful tools to give a person a little more insight into the possibility of having a serious mental illness. The problem with Google offering it is that this mega-marketing company is collecting your health data. Do you really want Google to have this kind of sensitive information about your mood?
Depression screening quizzes are great tools. They help a person learn whether they have symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression. They can then take those results to their family physician or a mental health professional to discuss. Nobody (much) questions the usefulness of these kinds of tests.
But what happens when you give your health data to a mega-data company like Google? Here’s what Google says about your privacy when taking the depression test online:
All your answers are kept confidential. […]
Google respects the privacy and sensitivity of these results. No individual data linking you to your answers will be used by Google without your consent. Some anonymized data may be used in aggregate to improve your experience.
You’re apparently giving your consent to have Google use your data when you get started with the quiz — there’s no apparent way to opt-out of not having Google collect your quiz answers for its data usage. This isn’t really highlighted when you take the quiz — you have to click on a little arrow to discover this. I find this a bit unnerving personally.
Why would you trust Google with your health data? Google is a huge online marketing monopoly that has an iron grip on what people see when they search for information online — both in content and in video (through YouTube).
What’s NAMI Doing Here?
I guess to make people feel better about taking a quiz that’s been available online for more than a decade, Google partnered with a non-profit that works in the area of mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
This is no dig on NAMI, but NAMI is not a scientific organization, nor does it have much to do with the PHQ-9. It is an organization that does great, amazing work from a family perspective of mental illness. But why only NAMI specifically? Why didn’t Google reach out to more than just one non-profit in mental illness to contribute to this effort?
There are literally hundreds of non-profits dedicated to ending the stigma of mental illness, and many who have done really great work in the past few years. For instance, Bring Change to Mind has really changed the modern conversation, in my mind, about mental illness. And Mental Health America has also worked very hard in this area of education and helping to reduce the stigma of mental illness. And that’s to name just two out of hundreds.
But only NAMI was chosen to help with Google’s effort, which seems a little unfair to me.1
Trusted Results for More Than Two Decades
The good news is that you don’t have to rely on Google for your depression test or in order to take a depression quiz online. We’ve been offering a number of different depression quizzes online since the 1990s, and we DO NOT collect your quiz results for anything other than scientific research — and then only when you specifically and voluntarily OPT-IN (not opt-out).2
Check these out:
- Quick Depression Test
- Depression Quiz — Our standard 18-question depression test
- All of our mental health quizzes — Over 3 dozen!
We applaud Google’s efforts in helping to disseminate more information about mental illness. But Google is a search engine, technology behemoth, and most of all, marketing company. Google shouldn’t be providing information directly to consumers about these concerns, but rather directing people to the best information online. When Google steps over the line to become a publisher of mental health information, it needs to be held to the same standards of other online health publishers.3
Today, Google is not, and so the depression data it collects on you may very well be added to your existing online marketing profile. That may not be a concern to you today. But it may be in the future, when such data is used to make decisions about things you thought weren’t connected (such as getting the best rate on a mortgage, or applying for life insurance).
You don’t have to use our depression tests, but I would highly recommend not using Google’s either way.
- But monopolies don’t need to worry about fairness, since they have the entire market and can pretty much do whatever they want. [↩]
- We haven’t published anything on our quiz data, but we are working on such research now. [↩]
- Who’s on their advisory or editorial board overseeing this information? Who’s their Editor-in-Chief? How is scientific information vetted for accuracy? There’s a good reason to ask: Google has a history of spreading misinformation about mental illness. [↩]