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Game could be key to solving anxiety epidemic

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The developer behind an app used to tackle childhood anxiety is in advanced talks with multiple NHS trusts ahead of a potential roll-out.

British firm BfB Labs has received regulatory approval from the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for Lumi Nova; the first mobile game for paediatric anxiety in children aged 7-12 years.

The game is funded by NHS England via the NHS Improvement’s SBRI Healthcare programme. It aims to revolutionise mental health interventions for children, helping them to overcome anxiety using an evidence-based therapeutic approach.

The game concept emerged from an Innovate UK funded feasibility study in 2017 and since 2018, was developed in partnership with the Anxiety and Depression in Young People (AnDY) Research Clinic at the University of Reading, along with MindTech UK.

The firm aims to provide an accessible and scaleable treatment  for anxiety for NHS integrated care systems and clinical commissioning groups, schools and local authorities.

Dr Claire Hill, clinical psychologist at the University of Reading’s Anxiety and Depression in Young People (AnDY) Research Clinic, says: “Lumi Nova is an engaging game that has demonstrated safety and is an important exemplar as the first MHRA-approved mobile game for paediatric anxiety that gamifies exposure – the key component of cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).”

A small-scale evaluation study carried out by MindTech UK between January and March 2020 collected gameplay data in 12 real-world settings.

120 children identified by parents or school staff with anxiety-related issues were recruited for the study, which showed that in an eight week period, Lumi Nova reduced symptoms across all domains of anxiety.

These included generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, panic disorder and phobias.

The findings also indicated that the pilot was able to offer evidence-based therapy to a group with an “identified need” but is, for the most part, hidden from clinical support.

Due to the pressure on clinicians and providers to prioritise high-risk individuals, almost 70% of children do not have access to evidence-based support.

BfB Labs says this results in young people with mild to moderate mental health issues facing the risk of their mental health deteriorating further.

And in the wake of COVID-19 lockdown, anxiety levels in children have more than doubled, studies suggest.

Mental health disorders often take root at an early age with around half starting before the age of 14. If left unaddressed, these may develop into lifelong chronic mental health illnesses.

Manjul Rathee, CEO of BfB Labs, says: “The universal appeal of games has the potential to unlock many barriers to access and engagement with healthcare services.

“Our games are designed to be standalone, played on mobiles/tablets, so they really empower children and young people to self-manage their mental health in a non-stigmatising way.

“This means they can be deployed and used at any point in a young person’s care journey – helping to provide instant access to evidence-based support, mitigating referrals, waiting times and delivering early intervention/prevention at scale.”

Aside from helping improve the mental health of children, BfB Labs says the game has the potential to save costs for public service by offering an early intervention solution that can allow clinicians and educators to focus their resources.

BfB Labs is now beginning to commercialise Lumi Nova and is in advanced discussions with multiple NHS trusts and schools to commence rollout.

Rathee says there is demand for the game, not only from children and young people’s services across integrated care systems, but also from schools; a common source of anxiety for many children.

One of the challenges in the game is to overcome the fear of going to school, which many anxious children and parents/carers are grappling with because of COVID-19.

“We’re responding to the significant market need for the development of digital technologies to enable early interventions and therapies for children and young people in-line with the green paper and the NHS long term plan, especially those that may not meet the thresholds for children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and wouldn’t have access to evidence-based therapies.”

BfB Labs is now investigating other areas of mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention.

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