White House presentation features mental health technology for young adults

Sep. 15, 2013

Melissa Pinto demonstrates the avatar-based system, called eSmart.

A new avatar-based depression self-management program was shown to significantly reduce depressive symptoms in a small group of young adults who reported those symptoms for more than two consecutive weeks.

Melissa Pinto, PhD, RN, a nursing researcher at Emory University's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, will present results of that research at the White House as part of the Technology Innovations for Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders conference on Sept. 16 at 4:30 p.m. The presentation is part of the Future of Health IT Behavioral Health panel. Viewing will be available via live stream at www.whitehouse.gov. Pinto will also participate in a roundtable discussion with policy makers and health system administrators at the White House on Sept. 17.

Pinto and a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University and the University of South Florida pilot tested the three-dimensional, avatar-based program, known as the Electronic Self-Management Resource Training for Mental Heath  (eSMART-MH), which immerses young adults into a virtual, primary care environment.

Through this program, young adults interact with virtual health care providers and health coaches to practice effective communication about depression symptoms. The technology generates tailored feedback to the participants' responses.

  Melissa Pinto
  Melissa Pinto

"This is an important technology, because many young people are affected by depression early in life, but tend not to receive treatment," explains Pinto. "Since this generation has grown up on computers, Internet, cell phones and other electronic devices, the eSMART-MH technology is very comfortable for them. Just being able to practice talking about depression with virtual health care providers may be enough to lessen the anxiety and stigma associated with seeking treatment. However, we need to conduct larger studies with young adults to see if eSMART-MH produces the same effect on depressive symptoms as it did in this study."

Participants in the study with prevalent depressive symptoms were randomly assigned to receive either eSMART-MH or attention control screen-based education on healthy living (sleep hygiene, physical activity and nutrition). After a three-month period, those who received eSMART-MH showed a clinically significant reduction in their depressive symptoms while those assigned to the attention control group showed no change.

"There has been a shame or stigma associated with mental illness for a long time and it's caused a barrier to mental health treatment for everyone, but especially young people," says Pinto. "Depressive symptoms tend to stay the same and gradually worsen without intervention, so we believe that by interacting with eSMART-MH, young people gain self-confidence in interacting with health care providers and become empowered to actively participate in their own health care."

The study was funded by the Midwest Nursing Research Society/American Nurses Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health (KL2 CTSC of Cleveland, Ohio and L30MH09173) at Case Western Reserve University. Development of the original eSMART platform was supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (RC2MD004760).