Half the mental health problems we experience in our lives start by age 14, and 75 per cent occur before we turn 25. That’s a lot of risk crammed into a small window of time. So, what can we do about it? And how can we create a solution that we know is going to work?

At the Black Dog Institute, we’re doing something big: rolling out a world-first trial to explore whether digital technologies can prevent and predict anxiety and depression in young people. Called the Future Proofing Study, the trial aims to reach up to 7000 students aged 13–18 at 150 schools across Australia, making it the largest study of its kind in the field of mental health.

Here’s how it works

To do it, we’re meeting students where they are—on their mobile phones. When a student signs up for the study, we set them up with two smartphone apps: SPARX, a fantasy adventure gamed based on cognitive behavioural therapy, and the Future Proofing App, which collects a wide range of smartphone data. A subset of students also receives the BDI-developed Sleep Ninja app, which has been shown to improve anxiety, mood and sleep.

From here, we’ll follow study participants for up to five years, exploring the potential of SPARX (and Sleep Ninja, for those who receive it) to prevent depression and anxiety over the long term. Because the study is a randomised controlled trial, we’ll compare the results to a control group of students who don’t receive the apps—so we can be sure that any results we see are a direct result.

On the prediction front, we’re pioneering a world-first technological approach. Data collected via the Future Proofing app is uploaded into Instil, a digital phenotyping platform developed by the Black Dog Institute and Deakin University. Digital phenotyping is a predictive data and behavioural profiling technique which has the potential to identify the early warning signs of mental ill health.

Early intervention that supports young people to thrive

To date, over 5100 students have commenced the Future Proofing Study, with 1600 more waiting in the wings. It is already showing promising results: in a pilot study of 500 Year 12 students, SPARX effectively reduced symptoms of depression for up to six months in participants who completed more than half of the app’s seven modules.

There’s a lot more data still to come, but we’re hearing from schools that the study is offering a range of benefits both within and beyond its formal scope.

“School staff have told us that the flexible, app-based delivery of the Future Proofing Study works well for students and is a great accompaniment to school wellbeing programs,” says Kate Maston, Program Manager for the Future Proofing Study.

“Our data has also helped schools identify at-risk students who they previously weren’t aware were struggling. That creates a really crucial opportunity for school counsellors to provide support.”

Read more about youth mental health research at the Black Dog Institute.


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