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Computer game as good as counselling for depressed youth

By Susie Hill

A new Kiwi-designed computer program for young people with symptoms of depression is sparking attention worldwide, with research results showing that it is a potential alternative to more conventional treatments for depression.

A research paper on the game has been published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, news articles around the world have profiled the project, and the program has won a 2011 World Summit Award in the category e-Health and Environment.

The Ministry of Health-funded project SPARX was developed by a team of University of Auckland adolescent depression specialists, led by Professor Sally Merry, and the software designed by Auckland-based Metia Interactive.

Spurred on by the success of a number of e-therapy programs for adults, the team developed the 3D fantasy game environment to teach young people skills to manage depressive symptoms themselves, based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy.

A video trailer on the website shows how a participant chooses their own avatar before venturing through seven “provinces” or modules that each deal with different issues, including Cave Province: Finding Hope, Mountain Province: Overcoming Problems, and Canyon Province: Bringing it all Together.

The BMJ article says a large randomised controlled trial of SPARX involving 187 youths from 24 sites found it to be an effective treatment for young people aged 12-19 years with mild to moderate depression. It concludes SPARX is as good as other treatments youth would normally receive, such as talk therapy with a counsellor.

This success has indications for use in areas where counselling services are in high demand or not present at all, and for young people who are reluctant to engage with talk therapies.

Rainbow version showed significant improvements

SPARX: The Rainbow Version has also been created and tested with young people who are attracted to people of the same or both sexes, or are questioning their sexuality. Researcher Mathijs Lucassen says more than 80% of participants said they would recommend it to their friends.

“The depressive symptoms of sexual minority participants decreased significantly post-intervention and this effect was maintained at three-month follow-up.

“There were also significant improvements on… self-rated symptoms of anxiety and a reduction in hopelessness,” Mathijs says.

The team has also carried out two other small studies; one investigating the effectiveness of SPARX with adolescents alienated from mainstream education, and another looking at the design factors that would make it applicable to Māori taitamariki.

It is expected these studies will inform the creation of other versions of SPARX.

Just as effective for Māori

Matt Shepherd (Ngāti Tama), a clinical psychologist on the team, looked at the results for Māori from the large trial and from a smaller Māori-only trial, and found results for Māori were comparable with the general population.

He adds that focus groups indicated Māori wanted more Māori design elements in the game to make it more applicable to them.

“We have catered to Māori to a certain extent in the seven modules, but we would like to add another module just for Māori,” Matt says.

He would also like to include information in the SPARX booklet that assists whānau to support adolescents with depression.

Practically speaking, Matt says SPARX could be used in schools as part of a health course, where students could learn skills on managing low mood.

“Young people don’t always get to see a guidance counsellor, so this could be used as the first means of intervention.”

Sally Merry says SPARX isn’t available for distribution yet. News and updates on the project are available from the SPARX website.

SPARX characters

Top Page last updated: 21 August 2012