Personalised games help kids with mental health disorders

News - 06 May 2020

Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability in children and adolescents. In fact, 30% of young people suffer from such disorders. And while traditional therapies are effective, there is still room for improvement in treatment approaches. For her PhD, Marierose Heineken-van Dooren set out to research how personalised gamification can be used to enhance the implementation of eHealth therapy in youth mental healthcare.

Blending psychology with technology

After studying clinical and health psychology at Leiden University, van Dooren completed a master’s thesis at TNO on helping children to self-manage their type 1 diabetes. This project helped foster her interest in the field of gamification and healthcare. “I also realised that I really liked the practical aspect and the technical side of doing research,” she said, which inspired her to pursue a PhD. So, when a position opened at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering on the topic of implementing eHealth for youth mental healthcare she quickly applied. “I thought, that’s basically design and psychology in one topic, which I found very interesting.”

Adolescence is a critical developmental stage so treating mental disorders early is crucial. But, as van Dooren notes in her dissertation, there are several factors that reduce the effectiveness of traditional therapy, including premature termination of treatment, poor attendance and low or non-adherence to homework assignments. One way to improve the effectiveness of mental healthcare includes the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). This combination of technologies with face-to-face therapy is termed ‘blended eHealth’. And adolescents, most of whom have smartphones, are particularly well-suited for this approach to treatment .

Stakeholders are the key

When it comes to using eHealth tools, motivation is critical, especially because the tools are mainly used on one’s own time. Gamification is one method that can enhance motivation by providing a fun and engaging platform for users. The focus of van Dooren’s research was to explore how the personalisation of gaming tools for therapy can even further enhance the motivation, thus having a greater impact on the treatment of mental health issues.

The research process, which involved a literature study, focus groups and experiments, resulted in the design of an eHealth application using personalised gamification. “We started out with a focus on adolescents suffering from addiction issues, such as cannabis and alcohol, but we intended for our design to eventually cover a more broader range of mental healthcare.” Due to difficulties in balancing research, app-testing and patient-therapist relationships, this broader step did not happen. Van Dooren’s conclusion was that actively involving stakeholders (including therapists, patients and domain experts) at multiple stages of the design process is critical. “If you design something for a context, it’s important that it is aligned to the context,” she said. “You can design anything from behind your desk, but you don’t know what’s going on in practice. Those therapists do. That’s why stakeholder involvement is so important, so that you can customise it to the context that it will work for.”

Looking forward

Having recently defended her PhD, van Dooren currently works for market research firm Ipsos. “It matches my personality and I really like what I’m doing.” She notes that her academic experience gave her some valuable tools. “Doing a master’s required some research, but for four years during the PhD, you’re only doing research. You learn how to talk to a large audience, how to give education to students, how to manage an interdisciplinary project, you really learn a lot.”

Van Dooren felt her project was successful, but also realises that her research is a building block. “As a PhD student, you have just four years so you can only study part of something,” she said. She hopes that smaller studies like hers will be used by other researchers for a larger study. With regards to youth mental healthcare, she said: “Young people are the cornerstones of our society. In the end, they will be adults and will impact the world.”