Can interacting with avatars reduce depression?

February 12, 2013

(Credit: Baker131313/Wikimedia Commons)

A preliminary study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University suggests that depression symptoms may be significantly reduced when 18- to 25-year-olds interact with computerized avatars — virtual 3D images of a healthcare provider like a nurse practitioner or physician — as a way to rehearse office visits ahead of time and learn self-management skills.

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 Melissa Pinto, PhD, RN, a KL2 Clinical Research Scholar and instructor at Case Western Reserve’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, who has studied mental health interventions in adolescents and young adults for six years.

The interactive avatar program, walks young adults through healthcare appointments with an avatar healthcare provider in a 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.

The sample of 28 participants between 18 and 25 years old was small — considered a preliminary study to gather data for something more extensive. 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.