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Sally Merry, University of Auckland:  SPARX E-therapy effective in combating youth depression

April 20, 2012

An innovative 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 therapy.

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.

SPARX 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 adolescent depression

More information on SPARX is available on www.sparx.org.nz.

It is hoped that SPARX will be available to the public soon.

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