Therapy is both an art and a science which could be strengthened by using big data, says psychologist Tony Rousmaniere.
His ideas – outlined in the recent article What Your Therapist Doesn’t Know – have not been welcomed by clinicians so far, but Rousmaniere says that big data could be a tool, like the thermometer, that takes a while to catch on.
Psychotherapy is effective for many people, but therapists – like all professionals – have blind spots.
One of the most common is that they can have a hard time detecting when their clients are at risk of deterioration.
Psychotherapy data would help to identify cases of deterioration as they happen, Rousmaniere says.
It works by clients filling out a simple questionnaire at the beginning of each therapy session about how they've been feeling recently. Their individual data would then be compared to a mass database of hundreds of thousands of previous cases and viewed alongside trends of clients who have deteriorated in the past. If necessary, an alert would then be sent to their therapist.
Many therapists remain skeptical about whether data and algorithms could detect something they can't, but Rousmaniere likens this to the initial scepticism of the thermometer, which was only accepted by mainstream doctors after many failed attempts over hundreds of years.
"We think 'Oh, they just invented a thermometer and it works and everyone loved it, but that, of course, wasn't the case… Previously [doctors] had assessed a patient's temperature just by touching them, and medical professionals worried if doctors used thermometers it would lead to a, quote, "deskilling" because they would lose the ability to do it with their hands."
Many therapy clients minimise their symptoms in order to protect the feelings of their therapists – and shame often plays a role, says Rousmaniere.
"There's a lot of stigma around mental health so people tend to blame themselves when they get depressed or anxious or do worse... I need all the help I can get to spot these things."
Employing science to reveal what a therapist's emotional intelligence doesn't pick up doesn't dehumanise the art of psychotherapy, he says.
"Each field has to wrestle with data, as it comes in, and I think psychotherapy is just starting that process now."
"We're a new science, we're still figuring this out."