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A smartphone app could help you with your mental health

Harold Mandel's picture
Considering what's in cyberspace

The technology revolution clearly has a lot to offer to benefit mental health. There are of course a myriad of mental health professionals online who can offer immediate support for people in mental distress. And the wide availability of mental health information online can have a great impact for those interested in self-help with their emotional well being. There is also a consideration that socializing and working online has the potential to open up brain circuits which can promote mental health.

The journal Clinical Psychological Science has reported interest in the use of mobile technology for the delivery of mental-health services has grown in view of the economic and practical barriers to treatment. However, research which focuses on alternative mental health delivery strategies which are more affordable, accessible, and engaging is in its developmental stages.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, have been looking into the viability of mental health on the go with mobile apps. They have said attention-bias modification training (ABMT) has the potential to lower treatment barriers as a mobile intervention for stress and anxiety.

However, the degree to which ABMT can be embedded in a mobile gaming format and the potential which this has for transfer of benefits is not well understood at this time. In this study the researchers examined effects of a gamified ABMT mobile application in highly trait-anxious participants. A single session of the active training relative to the placebo training lowered subjective anxiety and observed stress reactivity.

According to research published in Clinical Psychological Science playing a science-based mobile gaming app for 25 minutes can lower anxiety in stressed individuals, reports The Association for Psychological Science. The study has suggested that “gamifying” is a scientifically-supported intervention which could offer measurable mental health and behavioral benefits for people suffering from relatively high levels of anxiety.

Lead researcher Tracy Dennis of Hunter College has said, “Millions of people suffering from psychological distress fail to seek or receive mental health services. A key factor here is that many evidence-based treatments are burdensome — time consuming, expensive, difficult to access, and perceived as stigmatizing.” It is the position of Dennis that due to this concerning disparity which exists between need and accessibility of services, it is vital for psychological researchers to develop alternative treatment delivery systems which are more affordable and accessible while also being engaging. This is where a consideration of the mobile app emerges.

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The game in this research is based on an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety which is called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Basically, this treatment involves training patients to ignore a threatening stimulus, such as a hostile face, and to focus instead on a non-threatening stimulus, such as face which is neutral or happy. It has been observed that this type of training lowers anxiety and stress among people who are suffering from high anxiety.

In this research study approximately 75 participants who all scored relatively high on an anxiety survey had to follow two characters around on the screen, while tracing their paths as quickly and as accurately as possible. After they played the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, the participants were than asked to give a short speech to the researchers while being recorded on video, which is a particularly stressful situation for these participants. It was observed in the videos that participants who played the ABMT-based version of the game displayed less nervous behavior and speech during their talk and reported less negative feelings afterward than those participants in the placebo group.

Dennis explained that even the short dosage of the app of about 25 minutes had potent effects on anxiety and stress as measured in the lab. It is the feeling of Dennis that this is really good news in regard to the potential to translate these technologies into mobile app format due to the fact that the use of apps is generally brief and on the go. At this time the researchers are exploring whether even shorter times of play would have the same anxiety lowering effect.

Although it is not presently clear that this app would produce mental health benefits in people with clinically-diagnosed anxiety, it nevertheless presents us with a compelling case for a consideration that gamified ABMT could act as a “cognitive vaccine” against anxiety and stress, according to this report. It is the belief of the researchers that apps could eventually be developed which could assist in the treatment for other mental health disorders, such as depression or addiction.

It is the position of Dennis that gamifying psychological interventions successfully may actually revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health. It is the hope of these researchers to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies which can be used in conjunction with traditional therapy or that could be ‘self-curated’ by individuals as personal tools to promote mental wellness.

It is my impression that the technology revolution has opened up new horizons to benefit mental health care. People can now learn more about various ideas dealing with mental health care due to the easy and low cost access to such information on the Internet. People are now also in a position to work with blogs and social networking sites online to get assistance with their mental health when they desire to do so.

It also appears to me that many of the activities which people can take part in online, such as
social networking, game playing, entertainment and setting up their own businesses, certainly
has the potential to nurture mental health. Gamifying psychological interventions as described in the research in this article also appears to offer an essential component for revolutionizing mental health care in this era.