Women in Research: Vanessa Cheng Talks Games and Project Synergy

By Ruby Feneley
on 25 June 2019

Ruby Feneley speaks with Vanessa Cheng, a Research Associate and Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Sydney on her work with InnoWell on Project Synergy- and how digital technologies have the capacity to improve mental health services.

Vanessa Cheng is one tech-savvy young woman combining her passion for psychology and helping people with her love of gaming and technology. She completed her undergraduate degree at University College London where she received first class Honours for her thesis that analysed the connection between early childhood trauma, gender and the expression of callous and unemotional personality traits in adulthood. Her Masters, completed at none other than Cambridge, looked at how young people in the United Kingdom viewed mental health issues. Vanessa says she has always been interested in and passionate about mental health issues facing young people and she hopes that her latest work with InnoWell will have an impact on the way young people navigate mental health services.

InnoWell has developed an online tool that supports the delivery of mental health services – tell us a little bit about how this move will benefit consumers and service providers?

One of the biggest barriers Australians face when accessing mental health care is finding appropriate services. There are a lot of people, especially in regional Australia, who might have to drive for hours just to get to their mental health professional. In cities, many mental health services are facing increasing demand, which is leading to longer wait times for appointments. This has a really negative impact, especially if someone is accessing services because they are in a crisis situation.

The InnoWell Platform is a tool that has been designed to support the delivery of mental health services. It places the individual at the center of their healthcare, connecting them with their clinician to collaboratively manage their health based on their personal needs and health goals. Through self-assessment, clinician input, and the ability to focus on individual needs, the Platform provides tailored treatment options which the individual and clinician can work through together. This provides the right care at the right time for the person seeking care; and as a digital platform, access to treatment options is always available.

By setting up a platform where people will be able to communicate with their clinicians online – by answering questions about their current health status, setting up video visits, and collaboratively working on treatment options, it will make it that much easier for all Australians to access appropriate and timely mental health care.

Based on your research, are there some people who have a harder time accessing services than others?

Definitely. I mentioned people in regional areas but there are a host of reasons why people might find it logistically or emotionally difficult to access services. Men generally find it harder to seek out help than women, because of gendered social expectations. Recent awareness campaigns like RUOK? Day and the AFL’s involvement have helped a little with this.

People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and members of the LGTBQI community can find it difficult to find specialists who have an adequate understanding of their cultural or personal background, and the challenges unique to them. They may not have the language abilities to communicate with their patients effectively. It can be really disheartening for a first-time therapy attendee to feel like their psychologist or psychiatrist doesn’t understand their experiences and frustrating when the patient feels like they have to educate their practitioner.  That is something Project Synergy hopes to improve – coordinating patients with the clinicians best suited to their needs.

Another factor to consider is simply cost. Some people may not be able to afford the cost of the appointment. And people who are employed casually, by the hour, or have similarly inflexible work arrangements may not be able to afford the time away from work. That is another thing the InnoWell Platform, which is currently being trialed with support from the Australian Government via Project Synergy, is aiming to help with!

The platform is being developed through consultation with people experiencing mental health issues and practicing clinicians. These are the issues they have reported as part of the research activities of Project Synergy and the barriers to treatment we have noted in our research.  By integrating their feedback, we can ensure this is a platform that will change the patient’s experience of mental health services.

Your current Ph.D. project focuses on gamification. We’ve seen gaming psychology applied from everything to shopping apps and online dating and now mental health applications. Why is gaming important for mental health apps?

Right now gamification tends to be used as a way to keep consumers coming back – coming back to the shopping app or the dating app because the user experience is fun. It’s important for developers because they want people to stay engaged with their product. By applying this model to mental health apps we can help support users through the experience of working on their mental health so that they don’t “tune out” of therapy, which can be difficult.

A great example of gamification being used in an ethical way to help consumers is a Canadian app called BoosterBuddy. BoosterBuddy helps young people experiencing low levels of motivation – young people having difficulty with things like getting out of bed, going to school or work, making lunch or exercising. The app has the concept of “taking care of your buddy” by completing “quests.” The “quests” are things like learning coping strategies and performing self-care. Completing these tasks rewards you with “coins” to buy clothes for your buddy. It’s a really sweet way to gamify mental health because the gamification isn’t just about coming back to the app; it’s about giving the user that extra bit of motivation to perform self-care.

What would you tell someone wanting to follow you into research?

I think it’s important to talk to someone when you’re facing difficulties. Research gets a lot more fun once you start working on collaborative projects but when you’re working on a thesis only you are responsible for it can be really isolating.

Also, be careful doing your thesis on something you love! You will get sick of that topic. It’s normal! Sometimes I feel that way and then I realize –  I get to play games and call it research so I guess it did work out!

Vanessa Cheng, Project Synergy Researcher, with Women Love Tech's Ruby Feneley.
Vanessa Cheng and Ruby Feneley at TedXYouth

Vanessa Cheng bio:

Vanessa, 26, is a Ph.D. candidate at the Brain and Mind Centre, The University of Sydney. Her Ph.D. project focuses on the evaluation of MindMax, a gamified, AFL-themed app aiming to create a space for target users to learn about, and discuss, improving mental wellbeing. MindMax contains psychoeducational modules and videogame elements. More broadly, Vanessa researches mental health technologies and how best to incorporate games into them.

Find her on Twitter at @nesscheng

Find out more about Project Synergy at the University of Sydney Brain and Mind Centre.


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