A Digital Approach to Mental Health | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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A Digital Approach to Mental Health 

Fighting Depression with Avatars and Apps

Last Updated: 05/02/2018 3:17 pm

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Not just designed for mental-health challenges, SuperBetter is super malleable: People have used it for everything from dealing with a chronic illness to losing weight or facing a difficult diagnosis. Its basis in happiness research can make it a good fit for someone confronting a mood disorder like depression, just as McGonigal used it to pull herself out of an emotional abyss. The game's detractors say that SuperBetter is colored by too much positivity in a way that sugarcoats life's challenges. Yet there is some science around what McGonigal calls "post-traumatic growth," or the belief that our difficulties can make us stronger, a core idea behind SuperBetter.

Britt Bravo, a creative coach and consultant based in Oakland, California, used SuperBetter two years ago to help combat PTSD after a medical trauma. The game offered her small, manageable goals that she could tackle each day. "It gave me focus and control in a situation that felt out of control," she says. "If you feel anxious and depressed, it's not like you have a wound that you can see heal. You can't watch your nervous system heal. But it made me feel like I was making progress towards recovery."

Per the game's instructions, Bravo created a secret identity that combined some people she admired (fictional adventurer Lara Croft, crime solver Maisie Dobbs, and singer Michael Franti) for inspiration. A daily Power Up could be as simple as taking a walk around the block or playing Angry Birds. A Quest could be getting acupuncture or taking a Zumba class. In the end, she achieved her Epic Win: successfully overcoming obstacles and anxiety so that she could take a trip with her husband to Maine. As the months went by, she felt more like herself. "I liked that [SuperBetter] gave me a series of small wins. I looked forward to it," Bravo says. The game's bright-eyed positivity held appeal and egged her on. "It was silly and fun, and that probably helped more than anything."

Saving Lives? There's an App for That

The game-ification of life doesn't work for everyone. Depression is a serious and complex mental health issue that people experience differently and in varying levels of severity. Even in the midst of a deep, dark depression, ideas of harming oneself might never come to the surface. But if they do, one app developed in the Hudson Valley could be a lifesaver.

The Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness Kit (SPEAK) app is a tool designed mainly for friends, family, and community members at large, in addition to at-risk individuals themselves. Available for free smartphone download in both iOS and Android versions, it's something that people can have with them at all times. "We wanted to engage a new technology to help people," explains Vincent Martello, director of Community Health Relations for the Ulster County Department of Health and Mental Health, who worked with a team of mental-health professionals under the aegis of Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to create the app. "It's not meant for long-term therapy," he explains, "but it's something to help people recognize the signs of suicide risk in people around them. Features include instant call and text buttons to seek more expert help. The analogy would be a first-aid kit. We chose an app over a website because we knew we'd be able to reach more young people with it."

The three highest risk groups for suicide are veterans, teens and young adults, and older adults. Alarmingly, some experts have witnessed an increase in teen and young adult suicide risk in recent years. "A school counselor told me, 'If we had a handful of students in previous years with suicidal ideation, that would have been a lot. Now we get them every week,'" says Martello. He sees mitigating factors like the breakdown of family and community, pervasive violence in our culture, and the omnipresence of social media, which amps everything up. Pressure to perform in school also begins at an early age. "All these things combined can become a toxic mix."

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