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Teaming up through games for youth mental health

Almost two years ago this month, the Department of Health put out a call for Nunavut youth to test drive a computer game called SPARX, aimed at improving the mental health of Indigenous Maori youth in New Zealand. Now a similar Inuit-specific game is to be developed in Nunavut.

The home page of the soon to be launched website for I-SPARX features Kevin Karyak, left, and Jasper Pootoogook, who participated in a te(a)ch session in Baker Lake in March 2017. The Pinnguaq Association, which runs te(a)ch, is a development partner in the I-SPARX project. photo courtesy of Pinnguaq Association

"It's a video game with cognitive behavourial therapy embedded within it," explains Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council executive director Kim Masson.

"The idea behind it is that it's for youth who suffer from depression or anxiety, any kind of a mental health dilemma like that. They can use the game to access some therapy, to use the therapy to improve their general mental health."

SPARX is an acronym for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts, and the video game takes the player on a journey travelling through a wild fantasy world of seven different territories. The game player's mission is to restore the balance and save a virtual world from sinking into despair.

Embrace Life, York University professor Yvonne Bohr, the Pinnguaq Association, the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, and the Nunavut Research Institute have teamed up.

Bohr recently received $1,258,424 over four years in funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research for the project called Making I-SPARX fly in Nunavut.

"The (CIHR) funds will primarily be used by our Nunavut-based partners to pay trainers, software developers, community facilitators, research participants and researchers. A number of York graduate and undergraduate assistants will receive research training," Bohr added.

Her proposal was based in the results of the 2015 pilot.

Maori fantasy characters, pictured above, are characters in a video game intended to help develop resiliency and strength in Indigenous youth. A four-year project called I-SPARX will develop a community-based Inuit version of this successful New Zealand project. photo courtesy of Pinnguaq Association

"This research initiative focuses on working together with six communities and our Nunavut partners to coordinate the development, dissemination and evaluation of an Inuit-specific computer-based game," said Bohr via e-mail, adding the game had been successfully used as an intervention with Maori youth.

"The game familiarizes youth with strategies that can be helpful in regulating negative thoughts and emotion by supporting problem-solving, and in the process, reducing catastrophizing and hopelessness."

According to a 2016 New Zealand evaluation, 54 per cent of youth who used SPARX felt the game had helped them improve their wellbeing, and 62 per cent felt it helped improve their ability to manage their own wellbeing. Seventy-two per cent felt SPARX was useful and a good option for young people like them. That evaluation included recommendations to improve the effectiveness of SPARX.

Australia has a version called SPARX-R, used as an intervention tool for students facing a significant stressor – final secondary school exams.

"(The tool) demonstrates that an online intervention delivered in advance of a stressful experience can reduce the impact of such an event on the potential development or exacerbation of depression," states an evaluation of SPARX-R.

The Nunavut team will work with youth and elders in six communities to develop Inuit-specific content.

Masson says Bohr and Pinnguaq will be hiring a Nunavut coordinator, which will work from Embrace Life's Iqaluit office. Once someone is hired, six interested communities will be confirmed. Masson says that will likely take place in early 2018.

Bohr says the game "is multi-faceted, and is based on an understanding that mental health difficulties are not located in individuals, but rather results from an interaction of many variables in young people's lives: for example, historical cultural trauma, current social injustices, lack of adequate resources, community and family challenges, etc..."
Bohr said her research proposal is based on evidence that suggests that community-based and culture-focused interventions are very powerful and effective when it comes to supporting mental health.

Masson admits she is often a skeptic when dealing with research that takes place in Nunavut, "because I don't know that it necessarily benefits our local population the way that it should."

But she sees this project as being "directly beneficial."

"This has the potential to influence youth today, in a positive way," said Masson.

"And the beauty I see in this, on a secondary note, is that the approach is from a strength-based perspective – building upon the strength we already have. What do we know works well, what do we know people are capable of doing, and just need some support. So much is (usually) based in the negative, but this is so much about how can we help people be stronger than they already are."

Bohr emphasizes the need for the project to be rooted in community-based ideas about mental health, as well as of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.

The project will begin in six communities, but Masson says the game will eventually be available to all Nunavut youth across digital platforms.