Are games the future of mental health treatment?

Two friends combined their experience in gaming and medical therapies to create a unique approach to mental health that could help treat many more people.

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DeepWell DTx

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One of the biggest challenges for mental health treatment is reaching more people who need it. Some don’t realize they’re mentally unwell. Others can’t access therapy because of costs or waiting lists. Many don’t like the idea of discussing their problems with a stranger.

DeepWell DTx aims to change that by bringing mental health therapy to the masses – especially hard-to-reach patients – through gaming. Co-founders Ryan Douglas and Mike Wilson speak about why games are a great way to treat mental health issues – if you get the formula right.

Why did you decide to start DeepWell now?

We found that mental health came up constantly in our respective careers – Mike in gaming and Ryan in creating medical devices and therapies. We saw many people were missing the resources or help to treat disorders like anxiety and depression.

We often talked about what we could do to address this unmet need, then the deepening mental health crisis alongside the Covid-19 pandemic pushed us to start DeepWell.

What’s DeepWell’s philosophy?

We put games and game developers first. There is no treatment without player engagement, so therapy must be embedded in a fun and engaging game.

How has your team of 40 experts across gaming, science and mental health helped your success?

Our diverse team is made up of professionals at the top of their fields. Neurosurgeons, lawyers, creative strategists and others all work in service of the game developer. Without the game’s fun, there is no therapy.

Having scientific, regulatory and medical experts on board means we can make therapeutic claims, but they complement engaging, well-crafted games made by talented, dedicated developers.

What can players expect might change after playing your games?

Our games aim to help players improve their physical and emotional functioning. After playing consistently, you should notice greater resilience and capability to handle the stress and anxiety of daily life.

How has gaming supported your mental health? Which games do you recommend for therapy?

At the moment we’re focused on virtual reality (VR,) using games like Pistol Whip and motivational fitness apps like Supernatural for leisure and exercise. These games have especially helped during the pandemic for getting off the couch and quelling anxiety with movement.

We’ve also found immersive fantasy games like Lorne Lanning’s Oddworld and American McGee’s Alice, role-playing games (RPGs) like Wizard101 and world-builders like Minecraft therapeutic for us and our families. Any game that takes you out of your head has potential benefits.

Who are your customers? Are businesses investing in these games, such as the healthcare industry, or any business hoping to improve employee wellbeing?

We’re reaching out directly to folks with mental health issues. We also partner with game developers, publishers and platforms to create new games or repurpose games that are already therapeutic. We hope our games will make mental health treatment accessible to a broader audience.

Serious games have evolved as a genre in recent decades, especially in academia and healthcare. Do you align with it?

We are not serious games. We rely on the power of play and engagement that good games provide. While we see the value of other approaches, this is what makes us different.

How will your FDA games certification project benefit the industry and gamers?

Being able to make claims and develop games with therapeutic intent, and to have players understand the therapeutic benefit of engaging, will change game development and the audience games can reach.

Can you tell us about games you plan to launch?

The first game we’re working on focuses on addressing stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression on a VR platform. More to come closer to launch.

How will you keep your products secure and safe for users?

We closely follow the FDA and HIPAA guidelines and requirements for data management in prescription games.

What will success look like for DeepWell?

Widespread recognition of the power of game developers to develop Immersive Medicine and being able to produce many therapeutic options for a range of cultures and mental health conditions.

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About authors

Susi O’Neill is the Editor-in-Chief of Secure Futures and host of business tech podcast Insight Story. She’s a seasoned creative who’s led business content programs for brands including EY, Mastercard and Unilever. Off the clock, she’s a musician and performer who gives international performances playing theremin, the world’s first electronic instrument.