The next great mental health app will look like Pokemon Go, according to a Silicon Valley psychologist
- Dozens of mental health apps are available in the App Store, which remind users to drink water, take note of their feelings, and more.
- Apps like SuperBetter adopt aspects of traditional games, like powerups and quests.
- According to a Silicon Valley mental health professional, the future of mental health apps is to become more like successful games.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
You probably wouldn't think of chugging a glass of water, or talking to another person as "power-ups," but app SuperBetter is reframing mental health upkeep as a game.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults, a potentially huge market for apps that claim to help alleviate symptoms to tap into. Anxiety is already a big business, with the rise of products including fidget spinners, weighted blankets, coloring books, and more.
Other apps, like Happify, also use the trend of gamification as a way to market anti-anxiety practices, like meditation and overcoming negative thoughts. In Happify, you get silver or gold medals for successfully completing steps, while in SuperBetter you can do power-ups, battle bad guys, and complete quests.
Dr. Cameron Sepah, a psychologist who works primarily with tech executives and VCs in his San Francisco private practice, believes that "digital therapeutics," like these apps, are the future of mental healthcare, because they are more easily scaleable and accessible than traditional therapy. He says that the next generation of mental health apps won't look like traditional treatments, instead they will be more like games.
"The next great mental health app will look like Pokemon Go, and SuperBetter is the closest I've seen so far," he told Business Insider in a phone call.
Here's how these game-like mental health apps work:
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Superbetter is a "way of living gamefully in real life," according to its FAQ. Healthy activities are put into typical video game language, so power-ups are positive actions that make you feel better, quests are small steps toward goals, and bad guys are anything that gets in the way of those goals.
According to Dr. Sepah, applying gaming terms to anxiety symptoms can encourage you "not to escape your real life, but play the game of life."
Dr. Sepah says that the biggest challenge is digitizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which has been proven to be effective, but can also be "boring."
CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help people cope with stressful situations and identify negative thinking.
For Dr. Sepah, the key to determining if an app like this is worth your time is if it uses evidence-based treatments. Ideally, the app will run studies to validate what it's doing.
In an email, CEO Keith Wakeman told Business Insider "SuperBetter is one of the very small percent of mental health and wellbeing apps that have been evaluated in studies published in peer reviewed scientific journals."
SuperBetter and Happify both emphasize the scientific basis of the apps.
Unlike SuperBetter, Happify does not list research that specifically studies the app's impact on anxiety symptoms. It does, however, have a board of experts including PhDs and MDs.
Happify also uses mindfulness and self monitoring, both of which Dr. Sepah said have also proven useful for managing anxiety.
Apps that turn anxiety treatment into games can seem childish, but Dr. Sepah says they are likely the future of mental healthcare for people of all ages.
Dr. Sepah noted that if you want an app to have daily, active users, it must be fun, and anxiety treatments are not necessarily fun.
Rewards and in-game achievements may seem juvenile, but they keep people coming back, Dr. Sepah says.
As talking about mental health becomes less stigmatized, maybe we'll see more people using online treatments.
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