AUCKLAND: Long viewed as a contributing factor in teenage isolation, computer games are now being used to treat adolescent depression in an innovative New Zealand programme.
Rather than simply encouraging players to engage in mindless destruction, the SPARX video game attempts to teach teenagers how to deal with depression using a psychological approach known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Just as importantly, its creators set out to make the game exciting for those teenagers who are often reluctant to seek counselling and bored by well-meaning advice on how to cope with depression.
The result is a role-playing fantasy game, where teenagers adopt a warrior avatar and get to blast negative thoughts with fireballs while trying to save the world from sinking into a mire of pessimism and despair.
Project leader Sally Merry, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Auckland University, said the unconventional approach had proved popular with teenagers, allowing them to address their issues in privacy and at their own pace.
"You can deal with mental health problems in a way that doesn't have to be deadly serious," she said. "The therapy doesn't have to be depressing in and of itself. We're aiming to make it fun."
International studies consistently show New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the developed world and Merry said she was keen to make treatment for depression more accessible.
"The problem of depression in young people is an international one, it's common and mostly untreated," she said.
Merry said 75-80 percent of adolescents who suffered depression received no help at all, leading to potential problems such as poor school grades, social isolation and a negative outlook.
"Often young people can be feeling low and not really realise what it is," she 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."