Mental health problems in young adulthood are often ignored or neglected, a function of reluctance to seek treatment because of the stigma, inadequate insurance coverage, or a difficulty in finding a mental health care provider.
New research at Case Western Reserve University suggests depression symptoms may be significantly reduced when 18- to 25-year-olds interact with computerized avatars.
The avatars are virtual 3D images of a healthcare provider like a nurse practitioner or physician. The interaction provides young adults a way to rehearse office visits ahead of time and learn self-management skills.
Researchers used a Case Western Reserve-designed virtual program, called eSMART-MH to help the young adults. The interactive avatar program, eSMART-MH, was tailored for young adults with depressive symptoms.
eSMART-MH walks young adults through healthcare appointments with an avatar healthcare provider in virtual primary care office setting. During these visits, young adults practice talking about depression, ask avatar healthcare providers questions and learn self-managements skills to help manage depressive symptoms.
At this age, a majority of young people do not make contact with mental health providers until years after they first experience depressive symptoms. And those who do seek professional help may go to their first few appointments, but stop going soon after, said Pinto, who has studied mental health interventions in adolescents and young adults for six years.
Researchers followed 28 participants between 18 and 25 years old in the pilot study, randomly dividing the participants into two groups.
Half used e-SMART-MH, and the other half used electronic screen-based health information.
Before each of four visits over three months, researchers tested participants for their depression levels to gauge whether they had incorporated coping strategies from information learned at each session.
The assessment of skill carry-over is important as prior research discovered that without some intervention, depression may resolve temporarily, but usually becomes chronic and reoccurs for many years and worsens over a person’s life.
In this study, young adults who received eSMART-MH had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms over the three-month study, and depressive symptoms dropped below level for clinical significance.
The young adults who received electronic screen-based information only had no significant change in depressive symptoms during the study. Although the results of this study are promising and exciting, this was the first test of eSMART-MH.
“We are very early in the science. We look forward to assessing the eSMART-MH again in a larger study of young people,” says Melissa Pinto, lead researcher.
Study results are published in the current Applied Nursing Research journal, with the article titled “Avatar-based depression self-management technology: promising approach to improve depression symptoms among young adults.”
Pinto said the study was the first to her knowledge to use an avatar-based intervention for this age group to improve depressive symptoms.
The positive results from the pilot study suggest the method may be expanded for other disease state as the intervention provides a potential method to improve health care quality and reduce costs.
Source: Case Western Reserve University