• Rebecca Gallon

Opportunities in Digital Creativity and Mental Health Event

On Tuesday 22nd of September I attended an online event on opportunities in digital creativity and mental health organised by York’s Digital Creativity Labs. The various speakers’ belief that digital creativity can help sufferers of mental health was truly inspiring.

The event began with an introduction by Professor Marian Ursu, Director of DC Labs reminding us of the importance of finding solutions to mental health, especially in a time of a global pandemic. Professor Damian Murphy, research champion for creativity then reminded us of the two key aspects of society that inspired this talk. The increase in identified cases of mental health and our constant immersion in digital media. He said too many people were suffering because of mental health issues for the NHS to take care of and digital creativity might be the solution we need. We spend more than 5 hours on average watching TV, playing games, looking at social media. He finished by saying ”It's only normal to us that that engagement with social media could be used as a means to identifying potential problems with our mental well being and finding ways to address these problems.”

The first speaker was Fiona Kilkelly, immersive technology specialist and founder of Immerse UK. She believes that XR provides an accessible, comparatively low cost root to empowering people to own and address their mental health. It also creates a situation where the burden is taken off the NHS and public services by taking extra mental health provisions out of the clinic and into the community. To illustrate her point she cited a few examples of XR projects that improve mental health

  • Helium: a clinically validated mental fitness channel. It uses AR and VR for staff management of stress and anxiety and they’ve shown in peer review channels that helium has moderated anxiety by at least a third in under 4 minutes.

  • Deep: a meditative VR experience controlled by breathing.

  • Where Thoughts Go: an immersive emotional social network that enables people to meaningfully connect with others.

Fiona Killkelly insisted on the need for researchers, mental health specialists and creators to collaborate to create relevant work.

Second was Professor Sebastian Deterding, showcasing the projects done by DC labs. He began by reminding us that DC labs offer great opportunities and funded PhDs for those that are interested. He reminded us why digital creativity is so valuable by separating both words: digital media is broadly accessible thanks to mobile phones and web, it is also potentially more scalable because it’s easier to produce and distribute once the product exists. Digital formats are also very interesting thanks to their ability to adapt to each participant. Creativity is a powerful way to create empathy and understanding while giving people with mental health a voice. Many projects were presented including Mission Schweinehund, an app made for diabetes patients, DIG4IT a games for young people with phobias, MotivAge a research for interactive designs to improve the wellbeing of the aging population, Colton an app to create art with an AI and much more. They also did extensive research linked to Covid analysing people’s consumption of games and music during the pandemic. To see more of their projects check out their website: http://digitalcreativity.ac.uk/

Next up, Dr. Lina Gega presented ComBAT: Community-delivered Behavioural Activation Training for Depression in Adolescents. This 5 year NhR funded project aims to engage in purposeful and rewarding activities to create pleasure, achievement and meaning in young people with depression. She reminded us that according to the wordl health organisation, depression is the third leading cause for illness and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents (15 - 19years old). I particularly liked the expression “prescribed digital creativity”. Doctors prescribe medicine, psychologists prescribe social activities. Why not prescribe purposeful and rewarding activities for young people such as esports, storytelling, music, design, performance, or arts? She did note that not all digital activities are helpful such as online gambling which would only worsen people’s health. ComBAT’s aim is to gather research previously done on depression and creativity to create concrete research and projects that would be useful to teachers and social workers.

Professor Alex Wade who presented himself to us as a “cognitive scientist and psychologist and less as a digital creative team practitioner” is interested in seeing what we can learn about health and well-being from video games. 2 billion people play video games around the world and nearly all games (apart from Candy Crush he said apologising for “all the Candy Crush fanatics out there”) require some cognitive resources in order to be completed.

As well as looking like intelligence tests in some way, most of them require players to communicate and think ahead and plan strategically so they are not only interesting for instant reactions, they are asking you to solve long term strategic tasks. Until now, people have focused on the ways that commercial video games might alter behaviour. Professor Wade, argued the evidence on this issue is unclear and insisted that we should focus our attention on targeted “game like” and digital experiences because they are powerful clinical tools. Video games are also great to study and monitor cognitive health and personality at scales ranging from individual subjects to global populations. By focusing on multiplayer online battle games, he hoped to gain regular access to information about the state of people’s brain around the world. He admitted it was a “spooky” idea but he believes that we can use video games to monitor and understand mental health. He also told us that it was proven that behaviour performance within video games correlates with cognition in psychology in the real world. It is for example possible to identify people that are toxic in real life. Games companies collect key data to identify toxic players so the data already exists all that is needed is to get access to it. He did add that many people play games to escape reality and they might behave very differently in the games than they would in the real world. He nonetheless believes video games are a great tool that could help us understand and later on improve people’s mental health.

Example of an online multiplayer game.

Image credit: https://schadenfreudegames.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/multiplayer-online-battle-arena/

Last but not least Dr Paul Tiffin presented ideas about machine learning and mental health. His main question was: Can playful/immersive technology approaches be used to enhance ‘therapeutic skills’ in mental health staff? He began by presenting digital systems that already exist in the medical world such as automatic texts sent to patients when doctors meetings are cancelled. He expressed his hope for technology to be able to avoid relapses, crisis and self harm for mental health sufferers, by for example notifying therapists when patients have missed meetings. He did note that predicting rare events is however difficult for today’s technologies. Another great potential tool would be to predict mental health issues through people’s use of social media. Then again, machines are currently able to detect people with mental health issues but they can not yet detect what mental health issues the person has. His research focused on how to help mental health nurses because he noticed they are constantly face to face with ill and challenging patients and yet they receive less training than the rest of medical staff. The U.K is short of 4 o 5 thousand mental health doctors and he Dr Tiffin believes machine learning could lower this number. To test his idea, he created a situation judgment test to select mental health staff. These tests present a written scenario offering a dilemma readers have to respond to in order to show their understanding of the situation and the appropriate reaction. It tests procedural knowledge. These tests are already widely used. Because of that, it led Dr. Tiffin to wonder: can we use these to train softer skills related to emotion? He believes that when training people to respond emotionally to something, the experience of training itself should connect with the emotional rather than simply the intellectual. These tests are also much more effective than one-off workshops because to retain skill, feedback at regular intervals is needed. According to Tiffin, the benefits of this would be a reduction in staff burnouts, less stigmatised attitudes toward patients with challenging behaviours, better relationships between staff and even at home if their communication skills improve generally and hopefully less sick leaves which is a big problem in health services.

Marian Ursu closed the event by suggesting that a converged initiative between all the projects shown to us could maybe be created. He raised many questions: In the area of digital media and mental health, which part of digital media do we start to work with? Games? Film and television? Where do we set the boundaries? Which part of mental health do we target? What professionals do we target?

I left this event full of questions and hope that digital creativity might truly help some people thanks to the passionate work of the professionals I had just listened to.

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