Virtual life delivers tools for a real life
A new online computer game aims to teach young people about mental health issues, writes Lynnette Hoffman
MISSY Higgins is singing her heart out. The playlist moves from R&B to rap to alternative — it’s all decidedly hip and there’s good company about, but this is no big night out.
It’s a virtual world called Reach Out Central, a free online computer game created to teach teenagers some of the same sorts of resilience and coping skills a psychologist might — and get them to seek help if needed.
Devoid of guns, guts and gore, and no highspeed chasing, ROC is a role playing game set in suburbia with a web of characters to rival Neighbours . The premise is that you’ve just moved into a new town, and as you navigate the neighbourhood building friendships and helping characters through typical life struggles such as dealing with divorce or low selfesteem, you will actually learn tried and true cognitive behaviour therapy principles you can apply to your own life.
Reach Out Central was launched in September by the not-for-profit Inspire Foundation in an effort to reach young people — especially those in the 16 to 25 age bracket, young men in particular, who are notoriously reluctant to seek help from a health professional for mental health issues.
A team of 80 youth ambassadors gave a young person’s perspective as the game was being developed, and have been involved with the marketing content for the program as well.
According to the latest figures, one in five adolescents experiences a mental health issue in any given year, and fewer than 40 per cent get help from a health professional. When they do seek help it’s often for physical symptoms, so any underlying mental health problem can get missed or take a long time to be diagnosed.
That was exactly the case for Queensland student ‘‘ Mike Jones’’ (not his real name). Jones had always been a social person, and had taken on the role of school captain when anxiety struck a few years ago. He ‘‘ freaked out’’ whenever he was around people — speeches that once made him ‘‘ a little nervous’’ were now ‘‘ completely overwhelming’’. Nausea, sweaty palms, a racing heart and shallow breathing were becoming everyday experiences — and when he decided to see his GP, those were the symptoms he complained of.
And so Jones was sent for a string of blood tests and even a gastroscopy, all of which proved negative, before Jones himself suggested to the GP that perhaps he needed to be referred to a psychologist. He says it took only a few sessions of learning cognitive behaviour therapy to get himself back on his feet.
‘‘ I stopped being reactive and started to make changes,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was able to redefine who I was — sometimes I was faking it, being really positive even when I didn’t feel that way, but now it’s what people expect me to be.’’
It’s those sorts of coping skills — and awareness about when a mental health issue is too much to handle on one’s own — that the game is designed to communicate.
A 2006 national survey of 14,700 young people between the ages of 11 and 24 by Mission Australia found suicide was among their top five concerns — in particular, nearly 30 per cent of 11 to 14-year-olds and almost 28 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds said it was ‘‘ a major concern.’’ Coping with stress was the top issue 15 to 19-year-olds were concerned about, and overall two in five young people were ‘‘ significantly concerned’’ about depression. A 2005 survey by the Australian Democrats found 57 per cent of the young people knew a young person who had attempted or committed suicide.
Young people are waiting an average of anywhere from five to 15 years to do something about mental health issues, leaving themselves open to problems such as deteriorating relationships and problems with school and work, says doctor Jane Burns, director of research and policy at the Inspire Foundation.
Often they are concerned about confidentiality, or think seeing a health professional is a waste of time, Burns says. Instead they are more likely to speak to friends or family who often either underestimate the problem, or are ill-equipped to deal with it.
‘‘ People still have stigmatised attitudes, or they may not recognise how serious the problem is, so they tell the person to ‘ snap out of it’ or ‘‘ get out there and pull your socks up’,’’ she says.
There’s also a tendency, especially in young men, to try to mask the problems with drugs and alcohol, says associate professor Maree Teesson, acting Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.
‘‘ One third of young men with anxiety or depression and one in four women with either anxiety or depression, or both, will also have an alcohol or drug problem,’’ Teesson says. ‘‘ When you think of the typical person with an alcohol problem, what do you think of? An older male? Most people do — but the person most likely to have an alcohol-use disorder in Australia is actually a young male between the ages of 18 to 25.’’
It’s for those reasons that there has been growing interest in using alternative media to reach young people who either have or are at risk of developing depression, anxiety or other mental health problems, says Helen Christensen, director of the Centre for Mental Health Research at Canberra’s Australian National University.
In the last decade there have been about 25 research trials looking at the effectiveness of internet-based interventions — but nearly all have focused on adults rather than specifically targeting young people, Christensen says.
That’s just now beginning to change, with researchers at ANU in the final stages of a study that trialled the internet-based MoodGym, a self-help program that teaches CBT in a non-game format.
The study compared anxiety and depression levels in 14 to 16-year-old students at 30 schools across Australia, where half were given the standard curriculum the schools would normally provide, and the other half were given MoodGym. ‘‘ There was an increase in overall mental health well-being and reduced levels of anxiety and depression after six months in the students who accessed MoodGym,’’ Christensen says.
Video games have been used to promote serious messages before — two examples are a UN World Food Program game to educate young people about world hunger, and a US Army recruitment game simulating the experience of a soldier.
But Reach Out Central is the first to do so in the area of mental health. It will be evaluated for effectiveness by Swinburne University later this year.
Professor George Patton, director of adolescent health research at the Centre for Adolescent Health, says that even while longterm effectiveness remains to be seen, the potential benefits and low costs make webbased interventions a worthwhile venture.
‘‘ There’s good evidence that they work in the short term for up to about 12 months,’’ Patton says. ‘‘ We don’t really know how effective they are in the long term, but they don’t cost anything much at all — it’s basically the start-up and that’s it — and we know the biggest users of the internet are these younger groups, so web-based programs could be even more useful for them.’’
Ambassador: Nathan Berton was one of 80 young people who worked on Reach Out’s content and marketing