A 3D fantasy game that helps teens treat their own depression is one of a growing number of "e-therapies" thought to be as effective as face-to-face treatment.
The computer game Sparx is in contention for $2.7 million in Government funding as part of Prime Minister John Key's Youth Mental Health project, set for nationwide rollout later this year.
A clinical trial of the self-help computer game, developed by a team at Auckland University, found the online therapy could be more effective than traditional treatment for teenagers with depression.
It is one of several e-therapies now in development, with the Health Ministry currently deciding which tool to fund.
In Sparx, players can choose their own avatars to guide through seven game levels, restoring the balance in an imaginary world populated by Gnats (gloomy negative automatic thoughts).
They learn how to deal with emotions in the fiery Volcano province and recognise unhelpful thoughts in the Swamp Lands.
An article published in the British Medical Journal found Sparx was an effective treatment for young people aged 12 to 19 with mild to moderate depression.
The trial of 187 young people concluded the game was at least as good as more conventional treatments, and actually worked better for those who were more depressed at the start.
Of those in the study, 94 played the game and 93 visited therapists. Game players reported significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and hopelessness - more than regular treatment in some areas.
"You should give it to people in prison - they'll stop killing each other," said one young user of the game.
"I am not angry now ... It has changed me. I don't hate now," another reported.
The principal investigator, associate professor Sally Merry, said Sparx would make therapy more accessible, especially for teenagers reluctant to seek help because of stigma, or those who lived in rural areas.
"The medium is very suitable for young people and, while some of them do like to speak to people about their problems, a lot of them don't."
Researchers had mixed cognitive behavioural therapy principles with e-learning concepts to make it as "immersive and engaging" as possible, she said.
Meanwhile, Otago University researchers have begun a pilot study into an online therapy that helps to "red flag" suicidal thoughts.
Principal investigator Shyamala Nada-Raja said 120 Otago high school students took part in the i-Well study, with results now being collated.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said e-therapy was a great way to ensure young people received the help they needed.
"It certainly is a possible alternative, or complementary, approach."
- The Dominion Post