Med student explores gaming as a way to improve mental health literacy in youth

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Heading into her second year of medical school at Dalhousie University, Yuna Im is investigating educational video games as a medium for improving mental health literacy in teens and young adults.

“Video games are an easy way to engage young people, as they make things more interesting, fun, and memorable. They can offer a more interactive learning experience than reading textbooks or going through online modules.”
– Yuna Im, medical student

Pursuing a dedicated research project is part of Im’s curriculum. With an interest and volunteer experience in youth mental health, Im reached out to Dr. Alexa Bagnell, chief of psychiatry at IWK Health.

“This research fits well with the IWK Mental Health and Addictions program’s strategic direction in youth engagement and youth voice in service design and implementation,” says Dr. Bagnell. “There is so much we learn from young people and their innovative ideas and youth bring so much realism and optimism to our work.”

Im recently hosted a design jam to create product sketches of a video game about mental health. The event was co-hosted by her mentors, Dr. Bagnell, Dr. Lori Wozney, scientific lead, IWK MHA program, and Dr. Patrick McGrath, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus, Department of Psychiatry (Dalhousie).

A common term in the tech industry, a design jam involves bringing together end users (in this case, teens and young adults,) with subject matter experts to collaborate, share and prioritize ideas and ultimately co-design a product prototype.

“We focused on mental health literacy and depression, for example, how to recognize signs and symptoms, how to seek help, and how to initiate conversations with friends who are struggling. We also discussed how to identify and remove possible barriers to accessing resources,” Im says.

“Our goal for this design jam was to gain a better understanding of youths’ experiences and needs around depression so that we can create a video game that will be truly useful to them,” she explains.

The participants also came up with potential features for the video game, such as its storyline and characters, game mechanics and visual style, and so on.

Among the participants was Sahil Chawla, who just completed his third year in Computer Science at Dal. Chawla moved to Canada from the Middle East to pursue his education.

“Back home, the topic of mental health is rarely spoken about. That is what motivates me to be part of research studies hosted by the IWK and mental health awareness campaigns through the university,” he says.

Chawla heard about the research study through a post shared on Facebook. Design thinking is something he’s well versed in through his coursework and extracurricular activities.

“I strongly believe in giving back to society – specifically, leveraging technology to find solutions to real-world problems. What’s the use of keeping knowledge to myself if I can help make the world a better place?” he says.

The research team is now doing data analysis to establish key themes from the design jam and make some decisions before finalizing their product concept.

Moving forward, they plan to apply for grants and work towards developing and releasing their educational video game.