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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.

Feel SuperBetter
SuperBetter (iOS $5, Web; free) casts the player as a superhero on a mission. SuperBetter sets out games to play and tasks to perform to improve four kinds of resilience: emotional, mental, physical, and social. Game designer Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., based SuperBetter on the path she forged to strengthen her own mind and body while recovering from a concussion that didn't heal properly.

First you choose a superhero identity, a problem to solve, and a specific goal (called an Epic Win); then you strive to feel better by completing Quests and Power-Ups. Roadblocks such as negative thinking, too much sitting, and poor eating habits are Bad Guys to vanquish. SuperBetter suggests a Daily Dose, in which you perform three Power-Ups, fulfill three short Quests, and defeat one Bad Guy.

Offering both general tips and Power Packs for goals such as losing weight, fighting anxiety, and "Being Awesome," most of SuperBetter is private—including a Secret Lab with various trackers, a journal, and Lab Notes—but you can recruit friends to be Allies so that you can cheer each other on.

Along with the feel-good messages, SuperBetter includes scientific background explaining the usefulness of resilience and the various tasks. Short explanations accompany every task, and deeper explanations lie in the Lab Notes.

The power is still with the person
Rutledge, too, sees potential in games. "Because of the fundamental things about gaming, games map exactly to learning theory, attention, cognitive engagement."

In some cases, a game is as good as a mindfulness app...but when it comes to serious problems, technology can't always do the job alone. "If something is impairing your life, an app is not the place to start," Rutledge says. "If you're experiencing mental distress, seek professional help. I'm very big on games and psychology, but there are limitations. It's really about the people, not the tools."

Starting with sound science and good design, a website or app becomes a go-between for a person seeking better mental and behavioral health. With all the research and planning going into these apps—and the degree of personalization and self-determination they put into a person's hands—it's no longer surprising that technology can help humans feel more like themselves.


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