HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — Researchers at RIT are working alongside the FDA to test a new digital therapy platform to help treat addiction and other mental health issues. 

The study is years in the making and is aimed at extending mental health care to those who might not otherwise have immediate access. 

In partnership with Rochester Regional Health, dozens of RIT students and faculty are running the randomized clinical trial to test this unique form of therapy. The platform allows a client to customize an avatar on their electronic device to test the effectiveness of therapy compared to an in-person specialist. 

Over time, researchers say the purpose behind this offering became more evident. 

“When COVID hit, everything came to a screeching halt in terms of being able to give people health care. It became apparent we needed to have more options for patients to have access to care. We had to try to meet clients where they’re at and also use content that’s evidence-based,” said Dr. Caroline Easton, professor of behavioral health at RIT. 

Dr. Easton is the lead researcher on the study, which is funded by a grant through the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. She says the goal, to start, is focused on those who suffer from substance use disorders and the connection to potentially aggressive behaviors. 

“We track their symptoms over time. They report that in the platform in a scaling model and we ask them things like, ‘To what degree are you craving substances? To what degree are you using substances? To what degree are you angry, or experiencing conflict in the home?'” said Dr. Easton. 

The first phase of the 12-week trial begins this summer through a random match of 40 male patients to the digital platform or a therapist via Rochester Regional Health. 

Researchers say they are also focused on more rural areas, with patients who might have more difficulty in seeking this type of treatment. 

“Our rural populations sometimes live many miles away from a mental health or behavioral health office. The digital platform allows them to get some content, and maybe even space out a little bit more so the transportation barriers aren’t as significant to maintaining the progress they make in therapy,” said Dr. Cory Crane, associate professor of behavioral health at RIT. 

Researchers at RIT hope to build on this study in phases over the next several years, including various demographics in continued partnership with NIH.