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OU funds digital therapy for LGBTIQ+ youth in COVID-19

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An Open University (OU) COVID-19 Rapid Response funding scheme is supporting updates to an existing digital therapy program in order to better support the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/trans, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ+) youth.

Digital psychotherapies have come to the fore since the introduction of lockdowns around the globe, because of increased demand and the need for interventions that can operate within social-distancing guidelines

Dr Mathijs Lucassen, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health in the Faculty of Wellbeing Education and Language Studies (WELS), has been awarded £8,400 to undertake work in partnership with his colleagues in the youth e-therapy research team at the University of Auckland that will help adapt an evidence-based digital therapy program, SPARX, aimed at young people with depression in order to improve its acceptability for LGBTIQ+ youth.

Improving representation in digital therapy

SPARX has been shown to be as effective as standard care in youths 12–19 years old seeking help for depression. However, analysis of usage data from the past five years suggests the program needs updating to better support LGBTIQ+ users. In particular, trans users, who were more likely to have severe depressive symptoms, do not report the same improvements observed in other users (paper in press). SPARX involves a user customising their avatar which consists of a character that is ‘conventionally’ male or female in appearance. This is an issue LGBTIQ+ youth have previously identified as being important to rectify, and they have suggested non-binary options for gender diverse users be developed.

Dr Lucassen said,

We know that LGBTIQ+ youth are already at greater risk of depressive symptoms and depressive disorder and emerging evidence from the UK’s Queerantine Study suggests that these mental health issues have been exacerbated by COVID-19, with some forced ‘back into the closet’ in order to survive lockdown with homo-, bi-, or trans-phobic family members. Representation and choice are important factors in terms of making interventions more acceptable to LGBTIQ+ youth.

Professor Regine Hampel, Associate Dean for Research Excellence in WELS said,

“LGBTIQ+ youth are an under-served sub-population thought to be especially negatively impacted by COVID-19. This project is an important piece of work that centres on the faculty goals of undertaking research that supports vulnerable communities to thrive in a context of change and uncertainty.”

Over 10,000 adolescents have used the program since its launch in New Zealand (NZ), including 294 transgender and 50 intersex users. Plans are underway to bring SPARX to the UK and it has been recommended in the latest National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines (Guideline NG134) for child and adolescent depression. The changes to SPARX for LGBTIQ+ youth will be completed by Spring 2021.

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