There’s a word you’ll never hear in a new program to help children cope with troubling emotions: suicide.
It’s delicate, balancing the need for helpful mental health messages without mentioning the act, which has a tendency to spread like a terrible contagion.
The Hospital for Sick Children launched a new program this week — an interactive video game — to help children express their emotions. Being able to speak about feelings is a key part of mental health. The video is made for children ages 7 to 12. Rather than talking about suicide, the story set in space allows kids to choose different ways of responding to feelings such as being sad or left out. It seems a very young age to be worrying about suicide, but doctors say prevention and identifying risk early on is critical. “This age group is such an important one,” says Dr. Peter Szatmari, chief of child and mental health at Sick Kids.
It’s more difficult for kids with emotional difficulties to come up with solutions; they struggle more than others to be able to say what’s going on, says Roberge.
Szatmari says current thinking is that behaviour is driven by the complex interplay of cognition and emotion. By bringing emotions into conscious awareness, you can challenge them and apply reason to them.
“That’s why the video game is cool. It’s the pairing of expressing and thinking about your emotions. I can problemsolve this. I can deal with this.”
So you failed a test, he says. Is it really the worst thing in the world?
“People have to be shown this as a model and showing it in a video game is a really effective way for younger children.”
The interactive story — in his travels, a space explorer finds creatures dealing with differing emotions — will be accessible to many children on About Kids Health, the Sick Kids website for families and patients. It has about 3,000 articles on subjects from juvenile diabetes to ADHD and will have about six million visits this year.
Emerging research shows that kids do learn and can change behaviour from technology such as videos, says psychologist Patrick McGrath. It’s not as effective as work with a trained professional, but modelling is a powerful tool, says McGrath, vice-president of research and innovation at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “Modelling is one of the most effective ways of teaching. The way you have the most influence is not what you tell them, but what you do.”