Mental Health App Review: Pacifica/Sanvello

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Update 7/16/19 – Pacifica has changed their name to Sanvello, maybe because some people thought they were downloading a Chrysler? I dunno. Either way, after a cursory review it looks like the app is pretty much the same as it was when I reviewed it, so I’m following suit by changing the name of this article but leaving the content as-is.

Link: https://www.sanvello.com/ App Store  Google Play

Overview

I gotta be real with you all: I absolutely love this app. That’s why it’s one of my recommended resources. I originally found this app through this journal article. They dug through the literature to find some recommendations for what would go into the perfect mental health app. They made a list of which features are in which app. (You can see for yourself if you don’t want to read the whole article.) Pacifica had as many features or more than any other app, but a few things made it stand out: its pleasant interface, its ease of use, and the ability to integrate it into your therapy practice.

That last one won’t matter to those using this for self-help purposes – and it’s perfectly fine for self-help. But it’s really amazing for therapists. They have a subscription package for therapists that allows you to provide the full unlocked version to all of your clients. This version also allows you to track their self-reported mood ratings, monitor homework activities, and communicate securely with clients. Regardless, I still use the free version because I’m a cheap bastard and the free version is still really good. This is the app that I’ve used the most in my own practice and I’ve seen the best success with it. But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, so here’s the breakdown:

Theory

Pacifica talks about CBT and Mindfulness but doesn’t go to the point of talking about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which in a way is a point against it. There’s nothing really unique behind the science of Pacifica; it looks like they basically thought “Mindfulness is good, CBT is good [at least it was], so Mindfulness + CBT must be great!” And they’re not wrong, but they don’t do a whole lot to integrate these two perspectives the way some other 3rd wave therapies like ACT, DBT or MBCT have.

Having said that, they do provide some of the most solid CBT framework I’ve seen in an app. A lot of apps just take existing CBT worksheets and put them on a smartphone, but Pacifica nicely makes use of the interactivity of an electronic format. They use their mood tracking feature to adaptively recommend mental health practices for a specific moment (a technique known as Ecological Momentary Intervention), which is still some pretty cutting edge stuff.

Theory: 4/5

Content

Unfortunately, much of Pacifica’s content is behind a paywall, but what’s left is still pretty amazing. I would say their weakest offering is in the meditations, which are basically recorded guided meditations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s pretty much the default configuration of mindfulness apps. They go a step beyond by allowing you to customize the background sounds and including some animations for breathing, but they don’t provide a real thorough, progressive education in mindfulness practice that some other apps will.

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The CBT content is really where Pacifica shines. Their cognitive therapy content is solid – a lot of different tools for cognitive restructuring, journaling, thought records, etc. I especially like their behavioral activation tools, which they have under their “Goals” heading. They provide a wide variety of suggestions and help you construct an activity hierarchy for yourself. There’s some health behavior tracking, which I love to see in a mental health app, although it’s not as robust as a more fitness oriented app would have.

Their “guided paths” are basically tutorials for how to use their various tools along with some general psychoeducation about treatment or mental illness. It’s as complete a therapy experience as you could really expect to get without a therapist. And as a therapist, this basically takes over all the boring parts of therapy for me.

Pacifica is a general app for stress, anxiety and depression, so you won’t find targeted tools for PTSD or major mental illness. Even specific anxiety disorders, like phobias or panic disorder, are not really well served by Pacifica’s offerings, so if you’re looking for something beyond depression/anxiety, Pacifica might be a good starting point, but that’s all.

Content: 5/5

Presentation

Like I said, one of the first things that attracted me to Pacifica is its look. It’s fancier than the utilitarian look of the VA mental health apps or Mood Tools. It’s also not overly upbeat or flippant like Superbetter or Fabulous. There’s nothing wrong with any of these apps, and I like how they are all presented. Still, what I appreciate about Pacifica is that it takes a serious topic seriously, but does it in a pleasing, well-polished manner.

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As I’ve said, there’s a lot to Pacifica, so it is a little easy to get lost. Their Guided Paths do a great job of orienting you to everything that Pacifica has to offer, but in my experience people tend to struggle to find specific parts of the program when I try to point them to it. If there’s a way to pin a particular activity or tool to a user’s home screen, but I haven’t found it. Even I haven’t found everything Pacifica has to offer, because apparently there’s something called Milo that I never knew about before I went to write this review.

Judging by this picture, that might be a good thing.

But if we’re talking about a general app for depression/anxiety, I much prefer too many options to too few, and I think this app does as good a job of directing users to where they need to go as any could.

Presentation: 5/5

Verdict:

At this point, this is probably starting to sound like I’m getting paid by Pacifica to write a review, but my checkbook can tell you it’s actually the opposite. The truth is, this is the app that I’ve enjoyed the most from my own experimentation and that I’ve had the most success with when working with clients, so what more can I say?

Final: 14/15

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