Depression is common in adolescents, although many are reluctant to seek professional help. According to a study published in BMJ, specialized computer therapy is just as effective as one-to-one therapy with a clinician for adolescents suffering from depression.

In order to determine whether a new computerized cognitive behavioral therapy intervention called SPARX is as effective at reducing depressive symptoms than usual care, researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand conducted a randomized controlled trial involving 187 adolescents aged 12 to 19 years.

SPARX is an interactive 3D fantasy game which contains 7 modules designed to be completed over a 4 to 7 week period. In the game, a single user takes on a series of challenges in order to restore balance in a virtual world dominated by Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts (GNATs). Usual care primarily involved one-to-one therapy by trained clinicians.

The study was conducted in 24 primary healthcare sites across New Zealand. All of the study participants were deemed in need of treatment for mild to moderate depression by primary healthcare clinicians.

The researchers randomly assigned participants to either undergo one-to-one therapy or participate in SPARX.

Study participants received follow-up for 3 months. The researchers based their results on several commonly used mental health and quality of life scales.

The researchers found that SPARX reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least a third, making it just as effective as usual care. Furthermore, 31 (44%) out of the 69 participants who completed at least 4 homework modules in the SPARX group completely recovered, compared with only 26% (19/83) assigned to usual care.

Although both groups reported high satisfaction, 95% (76/80) participants assigned to SPARX said they believed the program would appeal to other teenagers, with 81% (64/80) recommending SPARX to friends.

The researchers conclude that SPARX is an “effective resource for help seeking adolescents with depression at primary healthcare sites. Use of the program resulted in a clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and hopelessness and an improvement in quality of life.”

According to the researchers, SPARX may be a more cost effective alternative to usual care and could be used to address unmet demand for treatment. In addition, SPARX may be easier for adolescents with depression to access in primary healthcare settings.

Written By Grace Rattue