Chats with an avatar may ease depression

CASE WESTERN RESERVE (US) — Interacting with a computerized avatar may help reduce symptoms of depression, according to a small study of young adults.

Researchers used a virtual program called eSMART-MH, which was adapted from a previous platform designed to help adults with chronic health problems manage their care.


Melissa Pinto, an instructor at Case Western Reserve’s School of Nursing, says the study is the first to her knowledge to use an avatar-based intervention for this age group to improve depressive symptoms. Findings are reported in the journal Applied Nursing Research.

The program walks patients through appointments with an avatar health care provider in a virtual primary care office setting.

During these “visits,” young adults practice talking about depression, ask avatar providers questions, and learn self-managements skills to help manage depressive symptoms.

A majority of young people don’t 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, Pinto says.

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

The participants, recruited from posters in city buses, were randomly divided 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, Pinto tested participants for their depression levels to gauge whether they had incorporated coping strategies from information learned at each session.

Prior research revealed that, without some intervention, depression may resolve temporarily but usually becomes chronic, reoccurs for many years, and worsens over a person’s life.

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.

Those 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, Pinto says.

“We are very early in the science. We look forward to assessing the eSMART-MH again in a larger study of young people.”

The KL2 scholars program is part of the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative of Cleveland, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Case Western Reserve University