Computer game can help children cope with anxiety

A computer game created by two Irish academics is proving effective in helping anxious or depressed kids identify and manage their feelings.

The game, Pesky Gnats, has been so well received that mental health professionals in Britain and the US requested training to use it when treating children.

Developed by Gary O’Reilly of UCD’s Psychology Department, and David Coyle, a lecturer in human computer interaction at the University of Bristol, the game is essentially a child-friendly version of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT is a psychological model designed for adults to help them identify the negative automatic thoughts that influence their behaviour, said Dr O’Reilly.

By identifying these thoughts, they can develop coping strategies. For children, however, identifying these thoughts is more difficult. In Pesky Gnats, players explore “Gnats Island” to identify and capture “Gnats” (or negative automatic thoughts).

Dr O’Reilly said research showed children younger than 12 can engage in more sophisticated types of CBT “if provided with concrete ways to understand abstract ideas”, with a skilled adult to help, and in a “de-stigmatising environment where children feel at home”.

The game was tested on 18 children attending regular schools in Dublin earlier this year. All were identified as struggling with clinically significant emotional difficulties such as anxiety and low moods. Dr O’Reilly said all showed better signs of adjustment after exposure to Pesky Gnats.

In the past year, Dr O’Reilly travelled to Britain and the US to teach 200 mental health professionals how to use Pesky Gnats.

“They absolutely loved it, they’d never seen anything like it before,” Dr O’Reilly said. An additional 550 therapists have been trained here in its use.

* Dr O’Reilly will discuss Pesky Gnats at the National Mental Healthcare Conference, Dublin, on Sep 27.

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