Sally Merry, University
of Auckland: SPARX E-therapy effective in combating youth
April 20, 2012
computer-based intervention for depressed young people, developed by
researchers from The University of Auckland, has been shown to be at
least as effective as standard treatments mainly comprising face-to-face
A research team led by Associate Professor Sally Merry developed and
trialed the intervention called SPARX with the aim of giving young
people easier, lower cost access to treatment.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) they assessed
the effectiveness of SPARX in 24 sites around New Zealand, including
youth clinics, schools and general practices. Half of the young people
participating used the new game and half received standard treatment
through their doctor, school counselor or other provider. SPARX was
shown to be at least as good as the standard treatments.
SPARX uses CD-Rom based computer gaming to teach self-help for
depression. It includes an interactive 3D fantasy game to teach young
people the skills they need to cope with challenges and manage their
mood. In contrast to many other e-therapies, SPARX has been designed to
help young people learn through action in a virtual world. It is based
on cognitive behavioral therapy, a proven therapeutic approach.
“Using computer technology that young people are comfortable with is one
way of making therapy more accessible, practical, and hopefully more
fun,” says Dr Merry. It has been designed to be easily accessed by young
people directly or to be delivered easily in primary care settings. In
2011, SPARX won a UN World Summit Award recognising creativity and
innovation in e-health interventions.
Depression is common among young people internationally and accessing
help can be difficult. One in five New Zealanders will have experienced
clinical depression by their eighteenth birthday. Three quarters of
young people with depression never receive treatment. “We want to
intervene earlier and more effectively,” says Dr Merry.
was initiated by researchers, clinicians, and learning technologists at
the University’s Werry Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in
the Department of Psychological Medicine. It was developed with input
from Māori, Pacific people, and other cultural groups in New Zealand.
The program was created with the assistance of a local game development
company, Metia Interactive. A number of actors, musicians and artists
have generously donated their time and skills to the project.
The work was funded by the Ministry of Health as part of the Primary
Health Care Strategy to build and strengthen the capacity of the primary
care sector to respond to mental health needs, and in this case