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Your Sweat May Indicate Stress, Depression

Researchers have identified chemicals in sweat that may suggest that a person suffers from extreme stress and depression.

A new screening method developed by researchers from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, yielded an accuracy of about 90%. The authors hope the highly effective and affordable test will improve diagnosis when access to psychiatrists is limited and prevent diagnostic inaccuracies that may happen during a screening interview.

A pilot study enrolled 1,084 firefighters from 47 fire stations around Bangkok during February-December 2022. The sweat samples were collected by inserting sterilized cotton swabs under each armpit and keeping them for 10 to 15 minutes. Then, samples were put in a sterile vial with a lid and sent to the lab to be examined with an odor chemical analyzer.

Air from within the sample vials was injected into the machine and analyzed for 10 to 15 minutes. The results were displayed in a fingerprint of the chemicals in each sample.

"In principle, people with the same disease often share the same group of chemicals. Similarly, people with too much or too little of these chemicals can be said to have high stress or are depressed. The accuracy of identifying the results from the past sample is approximately 90%,” says lead researcher Chadin Kulsing, assistant professor Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science.

Although the new screening method appears to be accurate, psychiatrists are still required to make the final diagnosis.

Exposure to dangerous and draining situations and reaching out to disaster survivors put first responders at an increased risk of trauma. It is estimated that 30% of them develop behavioral health conditions such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to 20% in the general population.

Despite the increased need for mental health care, access to it remains limited to many first responders. In the United States, volunteer firefighters report significantly higher levels of depression than career firefighters. Researchers say this may be due to greater structural barriers to mental health care, such as cost and availability of resources.

In a small 2019 study, first responders reported that a lack of knowledge and certain constructs prevented them from seeking mental health care. For example, they felt that they "couldn’t show weakness" by seeking help or feared a confidentiality breach. Moreover, some participants reported having had negative experiences with therapists, saying they couldn’t understand their job or couldn’t help with their trauma.

The new screening method based on chemical measurements is easily accessible and may help overcome some mental health care barriers.

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