Can A Computer Game Fight Teen Depression?

By Amir Khan on July 31, 2012 10:16 AM EDT

Teenager
Computer games were once seen as a symptom of teenage isolation, but now, researchers want to use them to help teenagers with their depression (Photo: Creative Commons)

Computer games were once seen as a symptom of teenage isolation, but now, researchers want to use them to help teenagers with depression, according to a new study, published in the British Medical Journal. The game, called SPARX, aims to tackle teenage depression is a fun way.

"You can deal with mental health problems in a way that doesn't have to be deadly serious," Sally Merry, study author and adolescent psychiatrist at Auckland University, said, according to the Agence France Passe. "The therapy doesn't have to be depressing in and of itself. We're aiming to make it fun."

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The game has seven levels, each lasting approximately 40 minutes -- about the same as a counseling session. Players get a guide who helps them through each level, teaching them skills such as anger management and conflict resolution.  

As players progress, the game's world becomes brighter and less forbidding, researchers said.

"We had to look at the learning objectives and still design it to be a game," Maru Nihoniho, who helped design the game, told the AFP. "That meant keeping the entertainment value, such as interactive 3D environments, puzzles and quests that you'd find in commercial games."

One in 20 Americans over the age of 12 reported feeling symptoms of depression between 2005 and 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include hopelessness, feeling like a failure, poor appetite and lack of interest in activities.

Depression affects approximately 1 percent of children under the age of 12, researchers said. But as children enter their teenage years, depression affects almost 25 percent. Depression that sets in during the teenage years has a poorer prognosis than depression that sets in in adulthood, increasing the risk of substance abuse, suicide and physical illness, researchers said.

Depression is treated through a combination of medication and therapy, but many people see the disease as a defect and think it will make people view them as "broken", Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, said in a Psychology Today blog post.

2009 British poll found that 92 percent of the population thinks being diagnosed with a mental illness would damage their career, and 56 percent said they would not employ a person with a history of mental illness.

"Everybody, including parents, are wary of treatment, and there remains a social stigma around depression, which in the peer-pressured world of teenagers is even more devastating," Redei said in a statement. "Once you can objectively diagnose depression as you would hypertension or diabetes, the stigma will likely disappear."

SPARX will help teens come to grips with their depression and treat it, researchers said.

"Often young people can be feeling low and not really realise what it is," Merry said. "They just know that they're feeling 'blah' and accept that as something they have to put up with. SPARX and cognitive behavioural therapy show them we don't have to accept that." 

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