Burdened by a combination of stigma surrounding mental illness and a lack of easily-accessible treatment, Americans with mental health problems tend not to receive care. But technological innovations such as mental health smart phone apps and games could help bridge coverage gaps by giving patients a convenient way to manage their illnesses.
There has been an explosion of mental health apps in recent years. Many are simple tools that help users with mental disorders keep tabs on their emotions and give their therapists more information. Others take the form of games that can help patients cope with depression, or remain mentally engaged and focused, even if they don’t get formal treatment.
Although psychiatrists warn that games with therapeutic effects are not a substitute for comprehensive treatment, many Americans may find them preferable to paying for mental health care. Those costs are often prohibitive, and even if a mentally ill person is lucky enough to be able to afford treatment, there is no assurance that they have a conveniently located mental health care professional, particularly if they live in a rural area.
But anyone with a smart phone and Internet connection can use mental health apps, such as 25-year-old anxiety patient Zoe Quinn’s “DepressionQuest.” Quinn’s game immerses users into a world where they have to make choices about friends, family, and work while periodically receiving advice about depression treatments.
The Boston Globe reports that other game developers have signaled an interest in creating mental health apps tailored towards brain trauma patients and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike many popular games that offer incentives for killing opponents and other negative behavior, these apps aim to reward patients who demonstrate a healthy mental attitude and good cognitive function, like making positive character choices in a game or employing puzzle-solving skills. For instance, Blue Marble Company’s “RESET” app for veterans with mental health problems involves connecting dots in a specific order quickly and accurately.
While applauding these apps’ convenience, some mental health advocates are concerned about the largely unregulated nature of the industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still deciding how to regulate medical apps on popular stores such as iTunes, and several game makers have requested that the government issue clearer guidelines on how to market their mental health products.