Imagine getting in your car and driving to an office building, walking into a calm room and being seated on a comfy couch or chair, making eye contact with a counselor who offers guidance. Now subtract the driving, the office, the couch and the in-person piece of the experience. This is avatar-assisted therapy. It might be hard to imagine receiving counseling from your computer when conventional therapeutic models have worked successfully for decades. So why change it?
Many reasons, says Matthew Schatz, Faculty Research Assistant at UMD’s Institute for Governmental Service and Research (IGSR). People recovering from substance abuse who seek help through state-funded agencies require much more than a physical space for treatment. For people with tight work schedules or living in remote areas, online access to counseling may be life-saving.
Located on the periphery of the main campus on Hartwick Road, IGSR goes unnoticed, but it nonetheless remains at the forefront of evaluating new technology in the treatment of substance abuse. With help from IGSR, Maryland’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration (ADAA) has implemented avatar-assisted therapy in several agencies— Epoch Counseling Center, Gaudenzia in Baltimore County, and Howard County Health Department.
IGSR’s director, Robin Parker Cox, feels confident about the contribution this project makes to the community. “IGSR is contributing towards the university’s goal of working with community partners to bring technology innovations to individuals to improve their lives.”
IGSR and ADAA have a long history of collaboration in the field of substance abuse treatment. IGSR operates the Statewide Maryland Automated Record Tracking (SMART) system, which furnishes ADAA with data to monitor and track client outcomes and provider performance. IGSR specializes in the use of action research methodologies and technology to inform decision-making and foster the adoption of evidenced-based practices in delivering state and local services.
Avatar-assisted therapy is not yet widely available and remains in its experimental stages, but it constitutes a next step in building a therapy network that is sustainable and responsive to people’s everyday needs.
In avatar-assisted therapy, the patient enters a “world” much like those in virtual gaming. Within a virtual therapy world, avatars sit in a circle to undergo therapy and develop relationships. “As they become familiar with the virtual environment, the technology fades into the background, and the therapeutic relationship becomes primary. Ethics, confidentiality, and rapport are the same in avatar-assisted therapy as in face-to-face settings,” says Schatz.
The original idea for avatar-assisted therapy comes from the Midwest. Members of ADAA who encountered the format at a conference were so impressed, they decided to fund a trial run at agencies in Maryland willing to participate.
According to Schatz, the approach is most popular with young adults between the ages of 18 and 28. Their familiarity with Internet use and computer gaming motivate them to stay with the program. Typically, this age group exhibits the biggest risk of failure when it comes to the treatment of substance abuse. Often they feel the least vulnerable and have not experienced the worst of abuse—in other words, they have not yet hit rock bottom.
As program manager, Schatz is in charge of coordinating the project between ADAA and the participating agencies, providing training to the agencies, and gathering data for use in evaluating the program. The results of this project will become available later this year.
June 25, 2014