Positive computing for young people’s mental health

An estimated three million people suffering from a mental health disorder each year don’t access mental health services. At the same time 92% of Australian households are connected to the internet.

Increasing attention is turning to how the internet can be used for mental health education, therapy and prevention, particularly among young people who are the biggest users of the internet.

A new collaboration between University of Sydney researchers from Learning and Affect Technologies Engineering (LATTE) in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, and the Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI), together with the Inspire Foundation/Young and Well CRC is investigating the potential of technology-based interventions for young people aged 12–25.

"We want to investigate how personal analytics, e-therapy and affective computing can increase wellbeing in young people" said A/Prof Rafael Calvo, Director of LATTE. Calvo works in the area of "Positive Computing" which looks at how technology can be used to support wellbeing. .Rather than deal strictly with illness, Positive Computing studies how digital technologies can support the mental health and flourishing of all people. Calvo is confident that positive computing technologies can be directed to support young people’s wellbeing via the internet.

In a proposed study, young people will volunteer to receive personalised visualizations and feedback on the events in their lives in order to help them spot some of the causes and consequences of their emotions and actions. Technically, the system will combine data provided in the person’s online diary with information they post to friends on social media to inform interventions that can help them overcome problems.

"Technologies are getting better, and our understanding of human emotions is getting better. We’re building systems that can detect emotions automatically, and then we can use that as a way of informing personalised psychological interventions" said Calvo.

The BMRI’s successful collaboration with the Inspire Foundation has already seen research and evaluation activities surrounding Inspire’s Reach Out, Act Now and Reach Out Pro websites. These online mental health resources were shown to reduce stigma and increase help seeking and coping skills, social inclusion and civic engagement in young people, as well as providing support for health care professionals.

A/Prof Calvo and his team at LATTE have already developed tools to provide students with feedback on written assessments, and intelligent tutoring systems that can detect whether a student is showing signs of boredom, confusion or interest so that the feedback and lesson might be adjusted accordingly.

"We’ve already seen with the Reach Out website that it is possible to educate young people about mental health issues using online technology" said Prof Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the BMRI, "The potential impact of an automated yet highly personalised feedback mechanism to intervene when a young person is experiencing symptoms of mental health disorder is enormous".