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'Pesky Gnats' help children understand therapy

A video game developed by an Irish clinical psychologist is being used to help children in therapy – now it is seeking volunteers to help turn it into an app.

Image: Dr O'Reilly

CHILDREN TAKING PART in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are being helped to understand the process thanks to two Irish academics.

Dr Gary O’Reilly is a senior lecturer at the UCD School of Psychology and as part of his work developed a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Workbook for children to explain the process.

Now that workbook has been turned into a video game and, it is hoped, will become an app that children in CBT therapy can use on their phones between sessions.

I wrote a hard copy manual for some of the kids I was working with to explain CBT to them. Dr David Coyle, who is now in Bristol, was in Trinity and looking at could he get clinicians to use technology more in their work, and he heard about my work book and decided to turn it into a computer game.


Dr Coyle was developing a software programme for clinicians to use, and he, Dr O’Reilly and Dr Nicola McLaid collaborated for about six months on a programme.

CBT is a form of therapy that was developed for adults and it helps a person become more aware of the relationship between how they think about things, how that influences how they feel and how that influences their behaviour, explained Dr O’Reilly.

He said that this is a ‘meta cognitive task’ that can be difficult for younger children to understand, so the workbook gives children a concrete basis for these ideas about CBT.

The gnats are the things you weren’t noticing, and when you trap a gnat you become more aware; changing their thinking is swatting gnats. [Then they are] hunting gnats back to their hive. It’s trying to translate those abstract ideas into something concrete.

The game helps to put CBT in a more social context, said Dr O’Reilly, bringing them to David Gnattenborough’s island, where they can explore the concept more.

They play the game with their therapist – the characters ask a question and the children discuss it with their therapist and then answer it. It’s a nice way to engage a young person; it’s very non-threatening. And children love compute games.


Currently, children are given a hard copy manual, or ‘Explorer’s Journal’, which has all of their exercises in it, but work has begun on turning that into a smart phone app.

“We have no direct funding,” said Dr O’Reilly.

We’re struggling to get things funded. We’re looking for people who have skills in app development to get in touch.

All of the material is given to children and therapists for free. The therapists are trained for free – so far 550 people have been trained in Ireland, 100 in the UK and 100 in the USA.

Those interested can get in touch through the website peskygnats.com. O’Reilly will speak on 27 September at the national mental health conference in Dublin

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