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Everything will be all right: Apps and services for improving mental health

Laura Blackwell | Aug. 30, 2013
Is your online life getting you down? Cheer up—there's a friendlier Web out there.

Bishop has since added free iOS and Web-based editions of Optimism. The $39/month Optimism Dashboard is a tool for clinicians that lets them follow the reports of patients who allow them access. "If a therapist wants to monitor 15 clients, they can monitor in real time what the clients are recording. They can also set up automatic reports on the clients." There's also an alert system so that if the clinician is worried that a client is suicidal, the system alerts them if the client logs the word suicide or suicidal.

These games are good for the brain
Not every mental health tool looks like serious business. Interactive fiction "game" Depression Quest (Web, donation requested) is like a choose-your-own-adventure story, only it's an adventure no one would willingly choose. Realistic, second-person writing works with a gray color scheme and haunting piano music (which gets glitchier as the character called "you" gets more depressed) to convey feelings of dread and torpor as you choose from a shrinking number of poor choices.

Depression Quest is neither a diagnostic tool nor a treatment tool. As Rutledge points out, "It takes attention to get through it," and someone who's deeply depressed may not have the stamina to follow through to one of the five endings.

That said, Depression Quest illustrates what depression feels like and how sufferers can take it on, with help. It can foster feelings of empathy toward anyone suffering with depression, and the game's designers give a portion of any donations to the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression.

Be warned: Depression Quest is intense. Other gamified mental health tools are much more fun to use (as you might expect from apps that concentrate less on getting help than on building healthy habits).

Exploring the power of positivity
"There are a lot of intervention-based apps, and others that are lifestyle-based," says Rutledge. "What they really are is the positive-psychology side: How do we identify the things that really work well? The gratitude apps and the mindfulness apps are working on that side."

A good mindfulness app, says Rutledge, is Meditation Oasis's Simply Being (Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Phone; $1). "Gratitude apps sometimes ask you to take a moment and think of something you're grateful for."

Some useful apps don't bill themselves as psychology tools. "Day One (iOS, $5) is a psychology app that doesn't know it's a psychology app. It lets you flip through a fabulous timeline and see the journey of your life. The apps that let you add images are more powerful."

Lifestyle-based apps and websites may look lightweight at first, but Rutledge points out that research lies at their core: "The whole field of positive psychology is based on finding meaning in life and working with cognitive behavioral therapy."


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