Digital connectivity in isolation provides hope


- Ottawa, Ontario

What do gaming and mental health have in common? A new Canadian‑made technology platform uses gaming technology to make remote mental health support as real as possible. Intelligent digital characters that interact with patients, fun exercises to build good mental health habits, and rewards for making progress will all be part of it.

Now under development, this new software is the brainchild of technology and mental health experts at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It is designed to meet escalating mental health needs arising from the COVID‑19 pandemic that have depleted existing health‑care resources. With in‑person therapy becoming increasingly scarce, time‑consuming exercises eating into schedules and frontline workers stretched beyond their limits, the mobile app–available 24/7–is a promising option.

A recent CAMH study reports that the pandemic is leading to more loneliness, depression and substance use, especially alcohol. Nearly a quarter of Canadians have significant mental health problems and about 30% of the population appears to be drinking excessively. With unprecedented uncertainty continuing as the world restructures into the "new normal," the mental health pandemic will likely persist long after the physical crisis is over.

Catherine Proulx, Researcher, Simulation and Digital Health Group at our Medical Devices Research Centre, is confident that the software platform will help with its engaging content, and also be accessible to all Canadians through their networked devices.

The strength in play

"We are harnessing video‑game tools for learning and therapy," says Proulx, explaining that from an early age, humans learn and benefit from playing. "We design our exercises like those in a computer game–fun and interactive. And because it's interesting, users are more motivated to develop good mental health habits such as practising mindfulness or reframing disruptive thoughts."

The platform will be integrated into CAMH's mental health portal, which includes moderated discussion boards, video conferencing and other digital resources. According to Dr. Peter Selby, Senior Medical Consultant at CAMH, a community discussion board moderated by mental health professionals during the 2003 SARS outbreak proved to be a credible and popular information source.

"This time, we had the website up and running in mid‑March when Canada had only 700 cases of COVID‑19," he says. Since then, the site has seen more than 300,000 visits and 22,000 downloads of the coping resources. "As new needs arise and feedback comes in, we keep adding features, so we expect that this new tool could have significant positive impacts both during the pandemic and in the aftermath." He added that the challenge is to test new ways to help while the pandemic evolves, and through innovation and evaluation bring credible resources to Canadians.

Credibility is particularly important in the age of rampant social media where information is often suspect. He mentions that by providing reliable information along with clinically validated tools, CAMH's suite of mental health resources will give users a network of tools to help maintain stability in an era where staying home is encouraged. "With increasing isolation affecting Canadians' lives, we are creating content to help them tap into their inner strengths and be motivated to take action with those strengths."

Designs for virtual living

The multidisciplinary NRC‑CAMH research teams hope to launch a prototype in early 2021 that will have the online features in place, and connect to the cloud. At this point, real users will have a chance to test‑drive it and provide feedback.

The development process is a collaborative one that includes getting clinician and public input into the design, and adjusting software on the fly. It must also ensure that the technology is inclusive and serves the needs of vulnerable populations.

"The technology that comes out of the NRC's labs holds the highest‑quality industry standards," says Selby. "While the process of working with a range of engineers, clinicians, researchers and users takes time, it ensures that the science is right and works over the long haul."

The COVID‑19 pandemic has clearly shifted the mindset of the world toward faster adoption of virtual living. In a world that is more confusing than ever, well‑crafted technology enables people to tap into a new reality with confidence. And that goes a long way toward lifting their spirits.