There’s hope in Hamilton that a video game called Harry’s Journey will help steer youth away from street drugs. Image courtesy of Dr. Suzanne Archie

Video game warns youth about drugs

By 
  • January 16, 2016

Can playing video games help youth kick a drug habit? Hamilton’s Good Shepherd centre is hoping to find out.

Backed by a $75,000 grant from Ontario’s Trillium Foundation, the Good Shepherd is testing a video game called Harry’s Journey that is designed to help curb addictions and identify mental health problems in youth.

About 200 youth will play the game and provide feedback over the next 12 months at the Notre Dame House youth shelter.

“We are looking at kids who are street involved and homeless who are dabbling in drugs,” said Loretta Finamore, director of youth services at Notre Dame House. “Some of those youth will be (regularly) active users.”

The game educates players about how drug use can impact brain function and points out early warning signs of mental health issues. It also directs players to places they can find help.

“It is going to show the trauma, it is going to show the devastation, if they play the game a certain way and ignore the signs,” said Finamore. “The idea of course is to get them off drugs.”

The game identifies Hamilton area treatment and care facilities. In the future, Finamore hopes it will incorporate organizations such as the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health and the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse.

Developed at McMaster University, Harry’s Journey draws on Dr. Suzanne Archie’s years of research and professional experience as a psychiatrist focusing on early psychosis brought on by drugs use.

Specifically, the game focuses on the use of marijuana, which youth are three times more likely to use than adults, according to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. In a study conducted by the organization, about a quarter of Canadian students in Grades 7 to 12 reported using marijuana during 2011-12, with 14 being the average age of initiation.

“There have been changes in marijuana over the years so that now it is very high in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol),” added Archie. “That can increase certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia or even bipolar illness.”

Additionally “chronic use of this drug can also increase the risk of psychosis, depression and anxiety,” according to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse.

Archie said adolescents aged 15 to 18, the target group for the Harry’s Journey’s testing, are most at risk of drug-induced mental- health problems and drug dependencies due to the vulnerability of their developing brains.

“Mental health and substance use issues tend to start during youth,” she said, noting that last year Notre Dame House took in about 500 youth in need of detox. “We needed a medium that youth are comfortable with to sort of help them to access care.... (because) our data shows that they do not know where to access care. Often it is difficult for youth to even describe their experiences.”

Archie and Finamore foresee school boards, community health agencies and doctors using Harry’s Journey.

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