Fighting fears and phobias: Using Apps to play mind-games

Diksha Nawany | Updated on March 10, 2018

pokemom-go   -  Reuters

Games can enhance cognitive functions, but must be used with caution as they are dealing with people and illness

As people chase Pokemon Go around the city, could this popular videogame help someone who may be afraid of getting out into open spaces? Can such “augmented reality” techniques help those suffering from social anxiety, for instance?

Various Apps are being used in the treatment of mental health, says Seetha Ramanathan, Psychiatrist at New York’s Hutchings Psychiatric Center. Since Pokemon Go is a recent phenomenon, it may take time for the evidence to come in, she says, adding, “There are mostly anecdotal reports at present.”

But Lumosity, for example, has become popular in the US and offers enough evidence to support its effectiveness. It uses a set of games to enhance cognitive functions (to perceive and understand) through graded tests. There are also Apps to treat anxiety, insomnia and self-injurious behaviour, she points out. In fact, using virtual reality to help treat a mental illness is not entirely new, the first published paper dating back to the 1990s.

Those using an App to deal with an irrational fear or anxiety may swear by it, but Seetha Ramanathan cautions that research on the effectiveness of Apps is limited. “It depends on the severity of the illness. I don’t personally recommend the use of Apps unless the patient asks for it. In that case, it helps since we encourage patients to have autonomy and take ownership of their treatment. But this is only in the mild to moderately severe cases. I worry that people may start self-treating and not seek professional help, which can be harmful for a patient suffering from a more severe condition,”she says.

Apurva Chamaria, Vice President and Head (Corporate Marketing), HCL Technologies, further points out, “The claims made by Apps are not validated by regulatory authorities. It is uncertain whether the App works or it is a placebo. Most Apps are created by start-ups and start-ups may not even have the funding to carry out any sort of clinical trials. They may be getting away with claims that are questionable.” But technology can help in an environment where it still is taboo to seek psychological help. “Technology can do the initial work; it can draw people into therapy. Especially the tech-savvy generation may be more willing to accept treatment of this kind. It can also help in India since the number of psychologists is very low,” says Vishal Sawant, Consultant Psychiatrist and Department Head (Psychiatry) at HBT Medical College.

Nevertheless, he adds, one needs to be careful as you are dealing with human beings and illness. And, the patient is extremely vulnerable. “Treatment can be coupled with technology, but treatment cannot be just online,” he explains.

It’s still early days, but patients can benefit from technology tested and approved, if taken under a doctor’s supervision. Bharat Shah, Head of Psychiatry at Lilavati Hospital sums it up rather well. While there’s little evidence on the usefulness of such treatments, he says, they do hold much promise. And once such new technologies become mainstream, India will catch on quickly, he says.

Published on September 16, 2016

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