Online interactive story aims to help children understand emotions

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When it comes to mental health, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is breaking the barriers in an unconventional way.

This September marked the 11th anniversary of World Suicide Prevention Day, an initiative to raise awareness that suicide is preventable, improve education and share information to decrease the stigma that surrounds mental health.

To recognize this day, SickKids launched a new interactive online story, Monarch’s Mission, designed to help children ages 12 and under, understand emotions.

“Educational gaming is a big wave of the future,” says Dr. Johanne Roberge, director of psychiatry emergency and crisis service at SickKids. “Everybody has feelings and responds to things that go on in their life. Helping to understand those feelings and what those choices are makes our lives easier and helps us to get to happier places faster.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in Canada, and third in the industrial world. It is estimated that two out of three students between grades 8 to 12 will think seriously of suicide at some time and that children as young as seven, often express thoughts of suicide.

In most cases, health care professionals recognize children who have a hard time coping with emotions when they end up in emergency rooms, mental health clinics, child protection agencies or if they have academic difficulties in school.

“Some kids, when they’re having difficulties coping with things, express it internally with physical feelings, medical complaints, crying or avoiding school, not socializing with peers or not wanting to leave the house,” says Dr. Roberge. “Or it can be directed outwards where you get kids who are in fights or stealing things because they’re trying to satisfy emotional needs.”

However, the younger you can educate children and the more skills you can give them, the better it is in the long run.

“Children who have coping strategies when confronted with conflicts, actually do better,” says Dr. Roberge. “They have the ability to self-soothe, which translates into what they will have later on in life in terms of their health, well-being, academic successes and level of criminality.”

The idea is that the earlier you start to talk to children about their emotions, the more open they will be to guidance; as opposed to starting at a later age, where they may have had a number of years struggling with how to cope and be less inclined to want advice.

Monarch’s Mission, developed by the AboutKidsHealth team at SickKids, is an interactive space odyssey that provides children with opportunities to broaden their understanding of the concepts of empathy, honesty and emotional awareness.

Players assume the role of Hero – a brave adventurer from Planet Terra who has been chosen to collect artifacts from an uncharted region of our galaxy. Along the way, Hero and his/her trusty sidekick, Monarch, encounter aliens who are caught in the grip of an emotional crisis. It is here that Hero’s role changes from collector to confidant. By encouraging the aliens to recognize the emotions they’re experiencing, Hero is able to help them identify the triggers of these emotions and equip them with the necessary coping strategies.

AboutKidsHealth collaborated with Dr. Roberge and her crisis team to tackle this project. Its inception began when SickKids Foundation donors Fran and Dan Brown provided the seed funding for the game, on behalf of the Lisa Brown Foundation. The Browns lost their daughter to suicide.

“When the Browns came forward with this vision for a tool that would help younger children understand emotions and learn to talk about their feelings, we were really inspired,” says Geneviève Metropolis, manager of web design and graphics at AboutKidsHealth.

Their focus, says Geneviève, was based on the learning objectives and any key messages identified by Dr. Roberge, who provided input on specific aspects of the game, such as gender neutrality.

“We wanted this game to appeal to both girls and boys,” says Dr. Roberge. “And it was important that it be cross-cultural so that it would make the game as universal as possible.”

According to Dr. Roberge, 90 per cent of completed adolescent suicides had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, primarily: mood disorder, substance abuse and conduct disorder.

“Most of therapy is about constructing a narrative to help children understand the story behind what they’re feeling and what they’re doing, as well as to get a perspective to make different, healthier choices when experiencing those things,” she says. “This is how therapy and the game complement one another. If we can help children talk more about their emotions now, then it will give them the skills they need to translate into their adolescent years.”

Monarch’s Mission can be accessed through the AboutKidsHealth.ca website.