DEPRESSION can seem worse than terminal cancer because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem." Anyone who has suffered from mood disorders, or who has lived with someone who does, will attest to these words by well-known US psychiatrist and author David Burns. It can be a lonely and unforgiving place.

Fortunately, the diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders has become much more commonplace nowadays than it used to be.

Part of the reason for this could be the "bipolar explosion". As articulated in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper by psychoanalyst and author Darian Leader: "It was precisely when patents ran out on the big-selling tricyclic antidepressants in the mid-1990s that bipolar suddenly became the recipient of Big Pharma marketing budgets."

But it is probably also because mood disorders carry less stigma than they used to, while pharmaceutical developments have made them much more eminently treatable.

Can technology help? And if so, how? Well, not much at the moment, if the depression-related apps in the iTunes app store are anything to go by. There are about 400 of them, ranging from the vaguely useful to the informative to the preposterous. Most of them simply replicate information you would find just as easily by googling "mood disorders". A lot of them offer nothing more than the standard depression checklist. A few help you to monitor your energy, anxiety, sleep, appetite and other factors, or symptoms, so you can view trends and analyse triggers. But that's as far as they go.

That may change, though, if a couple of researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology are onto something with a recent study, as they believe they are. Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science, and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, a software development engineer, wrote about their research project in the New York Times recently, arguing that they had found a direct correlation between depression and the ways in which people use the internet.

Last year, they recruited 216 undergraduate volunteers at their university and had them complete a version of the questionnaire widely used for measuring depression levels in the general population. This revealed that 30% of the participants had depressive symptoms. Next, they got the university's IT department to give them the participants' internet use data for the same month.

"This didn't mean snooping on what the students were looking at or whom they were e-mailing; it merely meant monitoring how they were using the internet - information about traffic flow that the university customarily collects for troubleshooting network connections and such," they wrote. They found a statistically high rate of certain types of internet use in the traffic logs of depressive participants than in the others.

These included more "file-sharing", very high e-mail use and frequent checking for new e-mail, frequent switching between internet applications such as e-mail, chat rooms and games and increased video watching, gaming and chatting.

That might sound more or less like many people use the internet without being depressed, but Chellappan and Kotikalapudi do believe that monitoring internet use could be a part of the solution to the problem of diagnosing mental illness and treating it. A smartphone app is said to be in the pipeline, which could give technology a meaningful role to play after all, if you don't mind a bit of snooping into how you use the internet.

ogradyk@bdfm.co.za