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

by Marc Wilson / 16 September, 2018
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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.


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