SPARX: The role-playing 'game' that's helping young people's mental health

by Marc Wilson / 16 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - SPARX game mental health

Photo/Getty Images

SPARX shows that technology can make a difference to mental health, but it comes with challenges.

There seems to be an app for everything these days. Health generally, and mental health specifically, is no exception.

The Ministry of Health website has a variety of initiatives focusing on mental-health support that leverage the ubiquity of cellphones and technology.

Some of these are very much ground-up. Lifehack, for example, involved recruiting young folk, putting them in close proximity to each other and seeing what comes out. Several of the projects that sprang from this process involve social media.

Another initiative that has promise, and also reveals the challenges of rapidly changing technologies, is SPARX. Developed by the adolescent health research group at the University of Auckland, SPARX is a free, game-like, self-help, online therapy program. It incorporates cognitive behavioural principles in role-playing games, providing young people experiencing depression and/or anxiety with tools to help manage their lives. It teaches five ways of protecting against depression: problem solving, being active, positive cognition, social skills and relaxation.

No good deed should go unevaluated, and the SPARX team (and a small goblin horde of students) have done just that, with promising results. For the target group (young people aged 12-19 with mild to moderate depression), SPARX is about as effective as four or more sessions of face-to-face counselling in reducing depression, anxiety and hopelessness. These effects had a half-life of at least three months, meaning the gains didn’t disappear a week later.

The Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (Superu), which closed in June, was a government agency charged with evaluating the uptake and effectiveness of youth mental-health initiatives, and its findings were a mixed bag.

Characters from the  SPARX self-help e-therapy tool.

SPARX, for example, was found to demonstrate “effectiveness in improving outcomes for some youth” but the program was known to only a small number of students, parents and teachers. However, many young people involved in the evaluations said they liked the idea of gaining support online as it was considered less embarrassing than talking to an actual person. This, I think, hints at a major challenge for technology-based health interventions – they’re part of a saturated marketplace. There really is an app for everything, and getting a product noticed is no small task.

Although SPARX works for those young people who complete it, only a small number of “real” young people (outside of the laboratory trials) have done so. Superu’s evaluation suggests this amounts to a minority of the minority of young people who are aware that SPARX exists.

I have, in the past, played the sort of role-playing games that SPARX resembles. However, SPARX is starting to show its age a little, and that presents several challenges. First, if it works as it is, there’s a risk that changing it will undermine whatever makes it effective. But if it looks naff to prospective users, they won’t use it, so that’s clearly an issue. Let’s say we decide to update the graphics or add content – who does that? The reality is that keeping games current is a resource-hungry activity. Gaming companies spend pots of cash adding content or bringing graphics up to contemporary standards, but SPARX is a government-funded initiative.

Challenges aside, SPARX shows that technology can make a difference, and what’s more, it’s local and it works.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

101413 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Searching Great Barrier Island for the meaning of…

by Joanna Wane

Joanna Wane goes to Great Barrier Island in search of the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Read more
Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake
101340 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake

by James Robins

The biggest beak in Oz screen history returns in a remake of a 1970s favourite.

Read more
Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or score
101364 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Television

Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or…

by Russell Brown

New Zealand jumps on the captivating, if time-consuming, bandwagon of televising cross-country journeys.

Read more
The downsides of tiny houses
101357 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Property

The downsides of tiny houses

by Megan Carras

Tiny houses look marvellous but have a dark side. Here are three things they don’t tell you on marketing blurb.

Read more
Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sleep
100946 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sle…

by Mark Broatch

A third of New Zealanders don’t get enough sleep and it’s killing us. Mark Broatch asks sleep scientists what we can do to get a good night’s slumber.

Read more
10 tips for getting a better night's sleep
100957 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

10 tips for getting a better night's sleep

by The Listener

Don’t use the snooze button on your alarm clock. Alarms spike blood pressure and heart rate, and snooze buttons just repeat the shock.

Read more
Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryptopia heist
101395 2019-01-18 14:38:51Z Tech

Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryp…

by Peter Griffin

Time is of the essence in a bank heist, and in the digital world, cryptocurrency tokens can be transferred in a flash and converted to US dollars.

Read more
Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Auckland central eatery NEO
101383 2019-01-18 09:28:19Z Auckland Eats

Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Au…

by Alex Blackwood

NEO is a new all-day eatery overlooking Queen St.

Read more