Sending your student off with real peace of mind

Posters? Check. Chargers? Check. Duvet? Check The car has been filled to the brim and so many items deposited in a small study bedroom that you wonder if there is anything left in your family home; your teenager is finally installed at uni.

It is always a tough moment for parents, smiling through anxiety as their children take their first steps away from family life. This year, though, has been tougher than ever. With freshers in lockdown in halls of residence in several universities, stress and anxiety has been greater for both parents and students.

So, apart from sending a supermarket order to keep spirits up, what else can you do to help your new undergraduate, and how can you be sure they are OK when they insist that they’re fine?

Caring for loved ones at any distance is always a challenge, but with the added constraints of Covid-19, it is not easy to hop in the car and check that all is well. And they may well not thank you for trampling on their independence, particularly in front of their new friends.

But what if they are just putting on a brave face? What if they are suffering from stress or depression.

A new app, Sensetel, has been launched that can help you to understand, unequivocally, whether your student really is “fine” when they say they are, even though they seem to have swapped home life for some sort of academic prison.

Diagnosing depression in primary care is notoriously difficult, even for professionals, as research in the Lancet indicated in 2009. A study of more than 50,000 patients reported by Dr Alex Mitchell, from Leicestershire Partnership Trust, found that there were more false positive diagnoses of depression than either missed or identified cases.

A US study published in September 2012 (Vocal-Source Biomarkers for Depression: A Link to Psychomotor Activity, by Thomas F. Quatieri and Nicolas Malyska) stated that accurate diagnosis of major depressive disorder took intensive training and “an automatic means to monitor depression severity would be a beneficial tool for patients, clinicians, and healthcare providers”.

Sensetel analyses markers in speech patterns that we all exhibit to produce an objective measure of a loved one’s well-being that adjusts and changes, as they do. Based on detailed scientific research into the indicators of depression and anxiety, it builds a picture of well-being over a number of phone conversations that identifies trends of improvement or deterioration. Just like a fingerprint, these voice markers cannot be masked and they function no matter what is said or in what language.

The app, which is fully functional on Android devices, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse data from hundreds of voice samples from the NHS PHQ9 depression and GAD7 generalised anxiety disorder tests. Even if the speaker is consciously or subconsciously trying to project a happy disposition, Sensetel picks up any underlying depression or anxiety.

The startling data that came out of the evaluation of voices in the training and testing of the algorithms undertaken in April and May this year of over 1900 people revealed that the young between 20-25 years old had very high prevalence of depression at 76%+ in some form.  Though, counter-intuitively  the anxiety levels were almost the opposite.

Since the young students are the ones who are being incarcerated amongst strangers it is not so surprising.

It’s undoubtedly a clever bit of kit, but is it intrusive?

For Quinton Richards, the founder of Sensetel, the app bolsters loving relationships and takes the stress out of caring. In this instance, the use of Sensetel can identify how vulnerable the person is to this problem and through the monitoring gives the opportunity to link up with free online cognitive behaviour therapy that can alleviate the underlying symptoms during this difficult time.

There is no question of someone downloading this on to their child’s phone without consent or snooping in a sinister way. Both users of the phones involved give their consent and either can withdraw it any time if they do not wish to continue.”

But, he says, Sensetel lets you walk the fine line between being over-protective and giving your teenager the space and confidence they need to maintain their independence.

Even if you can see your relations often, Sensetel has its value. “There are times,” says Richards, “when you see someone so frequently that you do not notice the subtle signs that indicate a deteriorating state of health. You almost develop a blind spot.

And it is not only youngsters leaving home for the first time and desperate to stand on their own two feet who may need that safety net; you may be equally concerned about an ageing relative who you are unable to see as much you would like in these lockdown times.

Sensetel gives families a safety net that reinforces independent living when visiting elderly relatives  is hard to manage, says Richards. You can confidently give them the space they need, knowing that Sensetel will highlight any signs of anxiety or depression.

The app is sold in bundles of calls for up to four users, starting at £25 for 30 conversations. For more details, visit

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