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Can a Virtual World Help Young Adults with Mental Health Issues?

Can a Virtual World Help Young Adults with Mental Health Issues?Can a virtual world help people better manage their health? Developers of a new computer program believe it can.

Developers of a new computer tool hope to improve provider-patient communications as well as self-management of mental health issues in young adults.

Thanks to a grant from the American Nurses Foundation and Midwest Nursing Research Society, Melissa Pinto-Foltz, a postdoctoral scholar and instructor at Case Western Reserve University, is working with a group to develop and construct the e-SMART-MH program to reach young adults already tied to their technology devices.

“Young adults accept technology as part of their lives and are comfortable interacting with it. This project seemed like a natural extension of what they are already doing every day,” Pinto-Foltz said.

While it may be easy for young adults to share the details of their daily lives on social networking mediums such as Facebook, the ability to communicate with health care providers about mental illness is a different story.

“Roughly one in every five young adults between 18 and 25 has a mental illness,” Pinto-Foltz said. “Seventy percent of them don’t receive treatment. Of those that do receive treatment, they have trouble managing the illness and often drop out of treatment early.”

Young adults are a particular concern, says Pinto-Foltz, adding that as young adults gain independence by heading off to college or becoming immersed in new environments, they struggle to manage mental illness.

The e-SMART-MH is a spin-off of a previously developed program called Electronic Self-Management Resource Training to Reduce Health Disparities (e-SMART-HD), which simulates patient-provider dialogues, through a virtual world environment.

A virtual world is like Second Life, where people view a computer-generated 3-D environment on a computer screen. Virtual health care providers, seen as avatars, interact with them in this virtual environment.

The avatars are used as virtual health care providers and mimic the facial expressions, language, and gestures common to real providers. The technology guides the patient through interactions with virtual providers, and whenever the communication hits a rough spot, virtual coaches pop up to guide the patient.

John Clochesy, the Independence Foundation Professor at the nursing school, is the original developer of e-SMART-HD. Funding for that project was provided through the National Institutes of Health.

As the next step in the progression of the e-SMART-MH, Pinto-Foltz and her team will examine the acceptability of the technology with 40 young adults aged 18 to 25 who are newly diagnosed with depression or anxiety from area health organizations and a college campus.

Half the group will be randomly assigned to use e-SMART-MH, and the other half will be given more standard interventions of screen information from videos and mental health literature.

“Our goal is to teach young adults how to interact with their health care providers to get what they need to manage mental illness,” says Pinto-Foltz.

This project is part of the research program at the National Institute of Nursing Research/National Institute of Health-funded SMART Center in the nursing school to find ways to help individuals manage their chronic illnesses.

Source: Case Western Reserve University

Can a Virtual World Help Young Adults with Mental Health Issues?

Selena Chavis

APA Reference
Chavis, S. (2018). Can a Virtual World Help Young Adults with Mental Health Issues?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Oct 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.