A randomized control trial published online in PLOS ONE (September 2, 2020) has found that turning mobile mental health intervention into a smartphone game can potentially improve well-being. The five-week study was conducted by Silja Litvin and colleagues at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and it showed that gamifying the content of mobile interventions improved resilience, which is a key character trait that helps reduce susceptibility to depression, stress and anxiety.
Although mobile mental health apps have potential as interventions for depression and anxiety, studies have found that people don't tend to stick with a routine long-term, which in turn limits the effectiveness of the apps overall. For this study, the authors proposed turning intervention content into a game, complete with levels that need passing, feedback and points, among other common gaming elements.
The trial was completed by 358 participants who were assigned to one of three groups: gamified intervention app, normal intervention app and waitlisted with no app. Resilience and anxiety were measured by self-report surveys at three time points. After five weeks, both resilience and anxiety levels were significantly better in the game group than in the other two groups. Additionally, the game group retained 21% more participants than the other groups.
"[The gamified intervention app] was able to show that it not only had a significant and beneficial impact on the participant's mental well-being, but that gamifying therapies counterbalances sky-high attrition rates most mental health apps struggle with, especially in the demographic of 18-35-year-olds," the authors wrote.
They noted that a gamified mental health intervention app that retains user interest and improves resilience could be an ideal option that helps prevent depression and anxiety in a convenient, inexpensive way—not to mention the fact that it would be attractive to people who want to avoid professional help due to potential stigma and negative feelings. Because five weeks is a relatively brief period, especially for mental health intervention, the authors call for future studies to examine the gamified app's efficacy in the long run.