Mental Health App Q&A: How can SuperBetter help during the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact on mental health. Digital mental health can offer unique opportunities to help people as they navigate this new reality. At One Mind PsyberGuide, we’ve been enthused to see many app developers stepping up to the plate to support mental health in innovative ways.
I sat down (remotely) with Keith Wakeman, CEO and Co-Founder of SuperBetter, a popular mobile app that builds resilience, mental health and success. Users experience SuperBetter as a game played in real life. Players complete quests, defeat bad guys, recruit allies and achieve epic wins relating to mental health, wellbeing, and other life goals.
Tell me a little about this app and what originally inspired it.
SuperBetter was invented by Jane McGonigal. Jane is a researcher, world-renowned game designer, and our Chief Science Officer. After suffering a severe concussion that didn’t heal properly, Jane found herself experiencing anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Jane created a game, now called SuperBetter, to help her overcome these obstacles., SuperBetter applies the science of how we play games to the real world. It helps people look at the world differently, using the mindset of gameplay. For example, when we play a game, we’re courageous and creative, and we look to allies for support. All of these skills we use in games can help us achieve goals and overcome challenges in real life.
What changes did you make to the app in light of COVID-19?
We created two new games, we call them power packs, within SuperBetter. They’re both available for free to anyone who needs them. The “Stay at Home Scavenger Hunt” is designed to build social connections while we’re physically distancing. This game encourages people to spend a few minutes a day finding things around their house to fulfill different challenges which evoke positive emotions and curiosity. For example, players might be challenged to share a photo of the place in their home which looks the most haunted. The second power pack is “Stay Strong in a Pandemic”, which is a more holistic approach to helping players build their mental, emotional, social, and physical resilience during this time. This power pack includes the “Plus One” technique, a simple way to connect with friends or loved ones and give their day a little boost, and the “Power Breath”, a special breathing technique to restore calm.
What was it like to make these changes as quickly as possible while still ensuring the content is credible and developed rigorously?
We care deeply at SuperBetter that everything we put out there is science-based. We wanted to quickly vet these new additions and get market input, so we crowdsourced ideas from the SuperBetter Community. Jane has a large Twitter following, and she put out a one-week version of the Scavenger Hunt which proved very popular. We took learnings and feedback from that to develop an extended scavenger hunt. To develop Stay Strong in a Pandemic, we went right to our current user base and asked them about their major obstacles and concerns, and what is causing them anxiety. We translated these insights into activities that were evidence-based.
What research supports SuperBetter, and how confident can users be that it will work for them?
SuperBetter is based on the science and psychology of games, there are elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and positive psychology. We also draw on challenge-response growth, which is the science behind experiencing a crisis, stress or trauma, and not only bouncing back but bouncing forward. This is really relevant for the pandemic.
A randomized controlled trial conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who played SuperBetter for 30 days had significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increased optimism, self-efficacy, perceived social support and life satisfaction, compared to waitlist controls (Roepke, Jaffee, Riffle, McGonigal, Broome, & Maxwell, 2015). An NIH clinical trial at Ohio State looked at SuperBetter among teens with persistent concussion. It showed that teens who used the app along with medical care, compared to only medical care, had greater reduction in concussion symptoms, and increases in optimism (Worthen-Chaudhari, McGonigal, Logan, Bockbrader, Yeates & Mysiw, 2017).
Thinking about the user experience of SuperBetter, what features are you most excited about?
The most exciting thing about SuperBetter is that it’s a game played in real life. It provides a lens through which people can look at the world differently. When we play games, we adopt a different mentality, one where it’s ok to fail. Even the language and tone of referring to goals as epic wins, obstacles as bad guys, and supporters as allies can be a helpful and empowering shift in perspective. SuperBetter is not just innovation for innovations’ sake, it’s a mindset intervention which capitalizes on things people are already familiar with, given that 65% of American adults play video games. Once you start to bring a gameful mindset to the real world, it gives you a new way to view opportunities and challenges in all areas of your life.
Who do you think would benefit most from the SuperBetter COVID-19 powerpacks?
We see that nearly 80% of our users are under the age of 45, so a lot of Millennials and Gen Z. This isn’t surprising, as these groups grew up playing games. Many mental health apps have skewed more female in their users, but with SuperBetter we see about a 50/50 split, so we can be helpful for both men and women. We’re especially passionate about empowering young adults and youth. These groups have already shown dramatic increases over the last decade in anxiety, depression, and suicide, and we predict their need for support will increase with the pandemic. We’re actively exploring alliances to significantly grow our impact with these age groups.
What other advice would you have for people to manage their mental health during this time?
The first is that it’s really important to take care of our physical health. We are whole people, and all aspects of our health are interconnected, including how we feel emotionally, mentally, spiritually, socially, and physically. The second is that making decisions about self-care every day can take a lot of mental energy, so establishing new routines and building self-care activities into our new normal everyday can reduce the burden of making those decisions.
What have you been doing for your own self-care?
Routine for me is a really big thing, I can’t go to the sports center to work out anymore, so at the beginning of the pandemic, I wasn’t exercising which had an impact on my mental health. So, using our SuperBetter methodology, I created a new “power up” to go for a walk around the block. That really gives me a burst of energy. I also am mindful of what I’m eating and created a “kitchen grazer” bad guy to make myself more aware of my unhealthy snacking behaviors and to remind me of strategies that I can use to battle that bad guy.
Learn more about SuperBetter’s response to COVID-19 on the SuperBetter Blog.