Video games specially designed to help users identify and address negative thoughts may be useful in treating depression among teens, according to findings recently published in the British Medical Journal.
In the study, researchers in New Zealand assigned 187 teens with mild to moderate depression to either play a video game or participate in conventional therapy sessions with counselors at schools and youth clinics. During the video game, called SPARX, players select an avatar and navigate seven realms of a 3D fantasy world. Each realm is designed to teach teens classic mental behavioral skills for treating depression. For example, on one level users battle their way through a swamp where they’re attacked by black, smoldering balls called GNATS, which stands for Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts.
Researchers used psychological tests to assess depression before, during, and three months after the study, which was funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health.
Both standard therapy and “SPARX” reduced levels of anxiety and depression by about one-third. And the video game helped more kids recover from their depression. About 44% achieved remission in the “SPARX” group compared to 26% in usual care. The research is significant, [lead researcher Sally N. Merry, PhD,] says, because the vast majority of depressed teens never get help.
Stanford researchers are also investigating the use of computer games to treat depression and anxiety in both teens and adults. An article in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine describes ongoing studies by Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, to evaluate games involving a range of activities from solving math equations to clicking on bubbles containing words with positive emotions. Another story discusses a study in the lab of Ian Gotlib, PhD, where a test measuring how quickly teen girls recognize a sad face versus a happy one on a computer screen is helping researchers to better identify adolescents who might have a vulnerability to mood disorders.
Previously: Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital partners with high schools on student mental health programs and Using fMRI to understand and potentially prevent depression in girls
Photo by Kaptain Kobold