Depression often begins when kids leave home for college, a time that marks their entry into the adult world.
Expected to solve problems on their own, these young adults are often reluctant to turn to professionals to help with overwhelming feelings of sadness. But new research from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio shows that help may be as close as the computer.
Enter the avatar: Researchers at the university's Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing showed that symptoms of depression can diminish significantly when sufferers interact with a 3D avatar or likeness of a nurse or doctor on the computer. The study was published in this month's Applied Nursing Research journal.
About 9 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 suffers from major depressive disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While many adults may first experience depression at a young age, few seek treatment, and conditions worsen as individuals age, Melissa Pinto-Foltz, who led the study, said in a statement.
Further, this age group is proficient with technology and often more comfortable interacting through a screen, rather than face-to-face, she said.
Pinto partnered with the developers of the Electronic Self-Management Resource Training (eSMART) team from the nursing school and the engineering school's Virtual Gaming Lab.
Researchers recruited 28 young people in northern Ohio for the study. Each participant had been diagnosed with depression or had reported suffering from depressive symptoms for two weeks or more.
Half of the participants visited a virtual mental health care professional in a virtual office environment, while the other half read health information on the computer. The study was conducted over three months and included four visits per patient to the virtual doctor's office. Researchers created the simulation in 2010, but recently updated it.
In the program, the patient sees an office on a computer screen, not unlike the virtual worlds of computer games, along with a virtual healthcare worker who's been designed to mimic the facial expressions, language and gestures common to real providers.
Whenever communication between the student and virtual professional hits a rough spot, a virtual coach pops up to guide the patient. In addition to helping young people learn to talk about their symptoms, the program also included advice from the professional on how to manage symptoms.
The study showed promising results. Depression symptoms of those who spoke with an avatar dropped below what professionals call the clinical level, meaning severe enough to require treatment. As for the others, reading material had no effect on their symptoms.
Pinto conceded that the study was too small to draw big conclusions, but said that the encouraging results warrant larger follow-up studies.